It's a Powerfully Good Winterby Al Gibbs, Staff Writer
The News Tribune, January 3, 2004
It hasn't happened in a few years, but mountain snowpacks and the precipitation they hold - sources of moisture that determine river flows at Northwest hydroelectric dams - look about normal so far this winter.
"I've heard an early-bird forecast that says we're 100 percent of normal," said Ed Mosey, a spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration. "Normal" refers to the average snowpack at a specific location over a 30-year period.
"It's disturbingly normal to a little above normal, and it's been a few years since we've had normal at this time," Mosey said.
"Our reservoir levels are pretty darn close to normal," added Tacoma Power's assistant power manager, Dolores Stegeman.
As rarely as that happens - it hasn't in at least the last four years - average snowpack and river flow are important to this region's economy.
The vast majority of the power sold by Bonneville and distributed by Tacoma Power is generated from water.
When there's not enough, the agencies must buy power from others, and market prices these days are far higher than they were two or three years ago.
On the Mid-Columbia exchange this week, prices ranged close to $50 for a megawatt-hour, more than double the historic average price. A megawatt-hour of electricity will power an average house for a month.
These days, at Paradise on Mount Rainier - which provides water to Tacoma Power hydroelectric plants on the Cowlitz and Nisqually rivers - snow levels are about 120 percent of normal, Stegeman said.
In the Olympic Mountains, where the Cushman dams are located, snowpack is at least 110 percent of normal.
Being close to normal, it turns out, isn't normal as packs can change as the weather gets warmer, drier or snowier.
"I think that as Northwesterners we're used to constant drizzle, and it hasn't been like that this year," Stegeman said.
Mosey said the Columbia and Snake River basins were a few percentage points above normal.
"Through December, things are looking pretty good," he said.
For Tacoma's hydro systems, 2003 was a below-average year, while 2002 was "well above average," Stegeman said.
She said 2001 was below average - "a tough year" - and 2000 was above average.
How the region will continue through its weather year - which runs from October through the end of September - is anybody's guess.
"There are so many variables," Stegeman said. "So many."
An average snow year doesn't necessarily mean an average water year, she said. When it snows can also influence the hydroelectric rivers.
"That's what makes the job interesting," said Stegeman, who is responsible for making certain there's always power available to heat and light homes, offices and businesses.
"If we knew what was going to happen every year, we wouldn't need people like me."
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