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Snowpack Shows Good Hydropower Year, But Snake may Dry Up

by Associated Press
Capital Press - April 12, 2002

BOISE(AP) -- Forecasters don't anticipate a great gush of water pouring from the snow-covered mountains this spring. But even the average snowpack should help stabilize Idaho's power rates for at least a year.

Customers should see steady or slightly lower electricity rates despite warnings that the Snake River -- a major source of hydropower -- may not be carrying enough water to maintain a flow through Southern Idaho this summer.

"The outlook is fair," said Dennis Lopez, spokesman for Idaho Power Co., the state's largest electricity supplier. Idaho Power estimates it will only be able to generate 70 percent of its normal hydroelectric needs. But Lopez said the shutdown of a phosphate processing plant in Pocatello -- one of the state's largest power consumers -- and the addition of a new 90-megawatt plant near Mountain Home will moderate supply and demand pressures this year.

Those events and a more stable market should mean about a 10-percent reduction in power bills for Idaho Power customers. The question rests with the state's Public Utilities Commission, which could approve an Idaho Power plan to spread $172 million of an estimate $244 million deficit during the next three years.

The annual rate adjustment includes paying for last year's conservation programs and for a spike in power costs, plus anticipated expenses for the coming year. The reduction could happen as soon as May 16, Lopez said.

However, Gene Fadness, spokesman for state utilities regulators, said commissioners are likely to consider an alternative that would delay savings in the short run and increase them over time.

"If customers can tolerate the current level, then there could be about a 30-percent decrease next year," Fadness said.

Avista Corp., which supplies power to Idaho residents north of Lewiston, already is working under a 27-month plan to recover last year's deficit.

Snowpack in the Clark Fork River drainage of western Montana is normal, so that company's main hydropower generation looks on target, spokeswoman Catherine Markson said. Smaller hydro projects on the Coeur d'Alene River will see flows about 135 percent of normal.

Across the nation, government caps on wholesale electricity rates, conservation programs and power buyback plans should make these summer's power market much more predictable, Lopez said.

Yet Southern Idaho irrigators who pump water out of the ground are already being warned about a water shortage this summer, despite an improved hydrologic outlook.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources mailed about 2,000 letters to pumpers last month, saying they likely will have to reduce their water use by at least 10 to 15 percent this summer, agency spokesman Dick Larsen said.

The Snake River, which supplies water to Idaho Power's Hells Canyon Complex dams, could reach zero flow below Milner Dam this summer, and Larsen said demand from southern Idaho irrigators may well exceed water supply.

Farmers who have surface water rights will get their allotments first, while others will have to do with less.

"It's harsh law that's set up to take care of who gets what water when there's not enough to go around," Larsen said. "If it dries up the river, well, that's the law."

The Snake River essentially reached zero flow last year as well, he said, but water from enormous underground springs and field runoff recharged the river downstream.

by Associated Press
Snowpack Shows Good Hydropower Year, But Snake may Dry Up
Capital Press - April 12, 2002

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