by William McCall, Associated Press
PORTLAND -- Drought may be threatening the Pacific Northwest and its hydroelectric capacity, but there will be no repeat of the 2000-01 Western energy crisis despite predictions of higher prices, officials said yesterday.
The latest estimate for the spring and summer runoff from melting snow in the mountains is only about 66 percent of normal, meaning there will be less water for irrigation, recreation and electricity generation.
As a result, a moderate increase in electricity prices is expected, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council was told at the end of a three-day meeting yesterday.
But despite a trend toward one of the driest years in the 77 years records have been kept for the Columbia River Basin, "the region has ample resources," John Fazio, one of the council's senior analysts, told council members.
He said demand has declined while generating capacity has increased since the energy crisis that began in 2000, when drought also affected the region, combined with failed utility deregulation in California and illegal manipulation of the wholesale power market by Enron, the Texas energy giant that went bankrupt.
"Are the lights going to go out? No," Fazio told the council, a federal agency created by Congress in 1980 to balance energy and environmental needs for Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.
Runoff totaled only about 58 million acre-feet in 2001, at the end of the energy crisis. By comparison, the runoff should reach nearly 71 million acre-feet this year, if trends hold steady, Fazio said.
The council dropped plans to discuss a Bush administration proposal to force the Bonneville Power Administration to gradually boost its wholesale power rates to market levels after the Northwest congressional delegation was able to block the proposal this week.
Bonneville is one of four federal power-marketing agencies that serve the nation with wholesale electricity. Most of the BPA electricity is generated at hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River and is generally cheaper than other sources.
The council said last month the administration proposal would have amounted to privatization of Bonneville and could have cost Northwest ratepayers an additional $1 billion.
Meanwhile, a report released earlier this week by Oregon State University indicates there will be little relief during the spring or summer from the unusually dry weather.
The report by Oregon State and U.S. Forest Service researchers also suggests the Northwest faces the threat of more severe forest and rangeland fires this year than other areas in the nation, where unusually wet weather has been typical.
"We project that the drought severity the northwestern states are now experiencing will only get worse in coming months, and reach levels that were generally seen during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s," said Ronald Neilson, an Oregon State botanist who also advises the Forest Service.
The latest estimates for fire risk indicate the danger spots are in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, along with parts of southwestern Idaho and Montana.
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