Snowpack's Status Nearing Criticalby Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, March 1, 2005
Time is running out for the Northwest's snowpack. After one of the driest Februarys on record, accumulations of mountain snow have dropped even further below normal across much of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
That snow is a vital natural reservoir for the streams and rivers that supply irrigation and drinking water, produce electricity at hydropower dams -- and sustain wild salmon journeying to sea.
Last month brought one-fifth to one-third the average rain and snowfall to most river basins in Oregon. For Portland, it was the fourth-driest February on record. The lack of moisture, combined with warmer-than-normal temperatures, left snowpacks worse off than they were a month ago in most of the region. Washington is down the furthest, with a statewide snowpack at 27 percent of normal, compared with Oregon at 35 percent of normal.
The next month will be crucial. The winter's accumulation of rain and snow typically peaks in April, effectively setting the amount of water available as river runoff until autumn rains restart the cycle. Without a significant increase in precipitation, the region probably will face widespread summer water shortages and conflicts over the needs of people and wildlife.
"What we need to hope for is some wet weather this spring," said Andy Bryant, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Portland. "A month or two can still make a huge difference."
Unfortunately for the water-supply outlook, forecasts by the weather service's national climate prediction center call for warmer and drier-than-average weather to persist through March.
"We're going to get a little bit of rain this week, but right now it doesn't look like any real big soakers. Then it looks like we'll be back to dry weather by the weekend," Bryant said.
For now, authorities from power suppliers to wildlife managers say the consequences appear manageable.
In the Columbia Basin, closer to average snowfalls in the far northern headwaters are helping. Runoff from melting snow and rain in the Canadian stretch of the Cascades delivers one-third of the Columbia River's flow, as measured at The Dalles Dam.
Taking that into account, river runoff measured at The Dalles is expected to reach 66 percent of average, according to the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal energy wholesaler. That's still better than 2001, the year of a water shortage emergency, when runoff at the Dalles was about 50 percent of normal.
"It will be tight," said BPA spokesman Mike Hansen, but barring unforeseen circumstances, "We fully expect to be able to meet power demands through the summer."
But the agency is bracing for a loss of revenue from surplus power sales next summer to energy-hungry California and other states. If surplus power sales fall short of projections, Hansen said that could force the agency to propose rate increases for the Northwest next year.
"We're hoping that the market prices will balance out having less surplus power to sell, but we've got a long way to go before we know how that's going to impact rates," Hansen said.
For salmon and other fish, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it expects to be able to keep river flows at levels scientists have deemed necessary to speed migration and improve survival through the system of dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
"We're still moving forward with our strategies for fish operations," said Cindy Henriksen, chief of the reservoir control center for the Corps of Engineers.
Outside the Columbia Basin, the water supply situation looks much more dicey, although it's still too early in most areas to know whether canceled water deliveries loom for farmers and other water users. In some cases, reservoirs run by the Bureau of Reclamation started the winter with more water than usual left from the preceding irrigation season, easing this year's problems.
In some areas, such as Oregon's Malheur Basin, shortages are likely to cut short irrigation water deliveries in late summer. But farmers and ranchers are learning to work with shortages after several nonstop drought years, said Ted Day, a hydraulic engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation in Boise.
"They have done well to adapt," Day said. "It's kind of a fire drill anymore."
The effect for the hard-hit Klamath Basin remains unclear. Snowpack was at 54 percent less than average Monday. Farmers in the basin have faced water shortages before, especially when the government withheld water for protected fish in 2001. But a reclamation official said the agency expects to avoid major conflicts this year.
"Things are looking pretty dry, but we feel that at least for the main part of the project we have sufficient water to meet all of our needs," said Cecil Leslie, chief of bureau's water and lands division for the Klamath Basin. Leslie said his agency won't specify deliveries to farmers until April, as soon as the most accurate water supply forecasts become available.
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