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Rainfall Not Enough for Thirsty Region

by Greg Bolt, Associated Press
The Register-Guard, September 30, 2004

A year of mostly normal rainfall wasn't enough to top off Northwest reservoirs and rivers, which posted below-normal flows for the fifth year in a row for the water year that ends today.

Most of the river basins in the Columbia-Snake river system received average to above-average rainfall for the October-to-September period, according to figures compiled by the Bonneville Power Administration and National Weather Service. But river flows remained stubbornly below normal, on the order of 75 percent to 85 percent of what they have averaged in the past 30 years.

Like most other parts of the region, the Willamette Valley had close to a normal year. The only exception was Eugene, which will end the water year about 10 inches below the 30-year rainfall average of 50 inches.

But it's questionable whether Eugene actually was that dry. The official weather service station at the Eugene Airport has delivered suspect data ever since the agency installed an automated rain gauge in 1996 in a different location.

State climatologist George Taylor said the Eugene data since the change has run 20 percent to 25 percent below that of nearby weather stations. For example, while the Eugene station will end the year with measured rainfall at 77 percent of normal, Cottage Grove reports 99 percent of normal, Leaburg has 96 percent of normal and Lookout Point Dam has 108 percent of normal.

Gauges in other parts of the Willamette Valley also show an average rain year. That leads Taylor and others to suspect the Eugene data are flawed.

"For most of the state, the water year has been pretty close to normal," Taylor said. "I think the 77 percent that Eugene is reporting right now really is not representative because in a sense you're comparing apples and oranges."

The rest of the region also is finishing the year close to average. The weather service reports that rainfall in the Columbia River basin above The Dalles was 101 percent of normal with similar amounts for the Columbia above Grand Coulee Dam and on the Snake River above Ice Harbor Dam.

But the average rain year apparently wasn't enough to get rivers up to average flow. Bill Murlin, a spokesman for the BPA, said this was the fifth year in a string of below-average water years in the Columbia basin, where stream flow was 75 percent of normal at The Dalles.

Lance Robertson, a spokesman for the Eugene Water & Electric Board, said the McKenzie River ran about 85 percent of normal for the year after getting off to a relatively good start.

"We were pretty normal through March, and then started getting really dry again," he said. "It really took a turn for the worse."

Lower stream flows mean less water to generate electricity, and that's a good part of what's behind a planned 5.4 percent rate increase in November. Robertson said EWEB is struggling to make up revenue it lost because it didn't have as much surplus power as usual to sell to California during the summer.

Robertson said EWEB also is still feeling the effects of the 2001 drought year, when low snowpacks left it short of electricity and it was forced to buy expensive power on the spot market at a time when energy companies such as Enron are believed to have manipulated the power market.

"Right now we're looking at an almost $8 million shortfall in expected revenue due to lower generation," he said. "The continued low water in the rivers has really hindered our ability to recover from that '01 year."

The BPA is doing a little better. Murlin said that despite below-normal river levels, the agency was able to meet all of its commitments and even sell some surplus power to California, although not as much as it does in normal years.

He said that's partly due to lower demand stemming from the region's ongoing economic slump and the recent closure of power-thirsty aluminum plants. Assuming things don't change dramatically, the BPA should be able to weather the coming year at least as well.

"Reservoirs are filling rather nicely, and I think most of them are going to hit their targets for this time of year," Murlin said. "So despite all these little pieces that have gone together that have said ... it was a below-average year in a series of below-average years, right now, pending anything catastrophic, we're in good shape."

Greg Bolt, Associated Press
Rainfall Not Enough for Thirsty Region
The Register-Guard, September 30, 2004

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