Columbia River Runoff
by Chris Mulick, Herald staff writer
The Northwest is off to another lousy water year, signaling bad news for electric ratepayers, fish and firefighters.
The latest forecast produced by the National Weather Service pegs January through July Columbia River runoff at The Dalles at just 80 percent of normal. That's still well above the drought conditions witnessed in 2001 but low enough to rank worse than conditions seen in all but nine years since 1961.
Columbia River runoff already has failed to hit average for five straight years. And though it may be too soon to panic, "it's enough to get a furrowed brow," said Ed Mosey, a spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration.
The agency sells all the power generated by the federal hydroelectric dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers and depends on melting snowpack to spin turbines in the late spring and summer.
That's when power fetches the highest price from buyers in the air conditioning-crazed Southwest. How much money the agency makes helps determine how much it has to charge Northwest ratepayers for their power.
It's not yet clear if the agency will have to raise rates again this year or be able to afford a decrease.
"It's too early," Mosey said. "It depends a lot on how the water year shakes out and what the market price is and how much we're able to sell."
Though there's still lots of time left for a rebound, conditions also could get worse. Kyle Martin, a hydrologist for the Columbia Inter-tribal Fish Commission, estimates runoff to be somewhere closer to 75 percent of normal. The Weather Service forecast assumes normal weather conditions from February through July.
But Martin said precipitation tends to tail off in years such as this one, when atmospheric and ocean conditions send mixed messages. The same conditions were seen in 2001.
"Things are definitely looking pretty gloomy right now," Martin said. "This year could be almost as bad as what we had in 2001. The worst is yet to come. The forecast will continue to drop off."
A late winter blitz could prevent that, but the likelihood of that occurring becomes increasingly small.
"Once you get past Valentine's Day, it's virtually impossible to catch up on your snowpack," he said. "I really don't see anything out there that will turn this around."
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