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BPA Rates Could Go Up In Fall

by Brad W. Gary
Columbia Basin Herald, March 15, 2005

GRANT COUNTY -- Public utilities throughout the Northwest are concerned about low river flows, but local officials say the drought isn't as big a concern in Grant County as it will be in areas farther to the south.

Water flows from the Grand Coulee and Rock Island Dams are about 80 to 82 percent of normal, according to the Grant County Public Utility District. While those percentages are lower than they have been in recent months, officials say there is a low probability for them to get much worse.

"Eighty percent isn't too bad," said Jeff Atkinson.

Atkinson is the manager of power planning and marketing for the PUD and he said river flows have been in the 90 percent of normal range over the last few years. Percentages are based upon a 60-year database of river flows.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire authorized last week for the state Department of Ecology to declare a statewide drought emergency, in part because of low snow packs and record-low river flows.

This year's flows are better than a situation in 2001, when, Atkinson said, flows were 64 percent of normal. Atkinson said those conditions were less than even the PUD's most conservative planning criteria. Drought conditions that year, coupled with a California energy crisis caused concern for power purchasers throughout the region.

"A lot of utilities across the region are still recovering from that," Atkinson said of 2001, "including us."

While conditions in Grant County aren't as bad in the rest of the state, Atkinson said the drought could have more of an impact on the Bonneville Power Administration. BPA provides power from both the upper Columbia and on the Snake River.

BPA markets wholesale power at cost from federal dams and other generation facilities to 131 public utilities in the Northwest, including Grant County PUD. PUD officials say the district gets approximately 50 percent of its power from BPA, however that power is mostly displaced to other power purchasers in the region.

"Right now, low water conditions are causing a problem," said BPA spokesman Mike Hansen.

Hansen said that all anyone has to do is look out a window to notice the drought in this part of the country. He said that for BPA, this year would be one of the worst years in the 77 years of record keeping. But, he added, that baring any unforeseen event, that BPA will be able to meet its water needs.

The reason for higher flow percentages at Grand Coulee, Hansen said, is that Canada is having more of an average year than the United States in terms of water flows. He explained that the farther north, the better the water flows will be. Hansen said that drought conditions will be bad this year, almost anyplace south of Grant County.

Hansen said BPA needs to make it through not only summer and fall, but the first part of next winter before the water situation improves.

BPA lowered its rates to the utilities it serves last year, but Hansen said BPA could be forced to raise those rates in October if the drought situation continues.

The situation, Hansen said, seems to be getting worse every day.

"It's about time that people start thinking about conserving water and energy," Hansen said.

State Sen. Joyce Mulliken, R-Ephrata, sent Gov. Gregoire a letter last week urging Gregoire to declare a drought. This week, Mulliken cited a Washington code that states that the Department of Ecology cannot withdraw water below essential minimums for power generation.

Atkinson said it was a low probability, but if the drought forecast gets much worse the PUD may have to start buying high-cost power on the open market.

For now, the Grant County PUD is actually experiencing a surplus month this March. Atkinson said reservoirs at the Grand Coulee Dam have been lowered because of some work being done at the dam. The PUD is anticipating low water flows in June and July, once work is complete and the dam reservoir is refilled, he said.

Atkinson said that as water conditions have deteriorated the PUD has been proactive, and is strategizing different ways to make sure rates are stable and making sure the lights don't go out in Grant County.

"Keeping the lights on is job one," Atkinson said, "and then we focus on stable rates."

Brad W. Gary
BPA Rates Could Go Up In Fall
Columbia Basin Herald, March 15, 2005

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