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Drought Threatens Washington State Hydropower, Salmon

by Reuters
Environmental News Network, February 21, 2001

The Western U.S. power shortage could worsen if shrinking Washington state water supplies force tough choices between feeding hydropower plants and saving endangered salmon, the governor's office said Tuesday.

Persistently sunny skies have shrunken rivers, reservoirs and snowpacks to dangerously low levels, causing state officials to begin preparing for a drought declaration, perhaps as soon as mid-March.

"These days are really great out there. It's spring, it's California-like weather. It's wonderful. But there may be a price to pay in the summertime," said Bob Nichols, natural resources adviser to Gov. Gary Locke, in a telephone interview.

The stakes are high in a region heavily dependent on its legendary wet climate to provide clean electricity and support everything from fruit farms to metal smelters and ski resorts alongside the regional mascot the tasty, embattled salmon.

"The big crunch is going to come between water for hydropower generation and the fish," Nichols said. "They have a very powerful Endangered Species Act (protection). This may come head-on. We need some of that water to generate electricity."

The timing of the water shortage is terrible. A botched power deregulation scheme in California, where a cool winter has followed withering summer heat, has helped drain regional power supplies and boost prices by as much as 80 percent.

Locke and Nichols Tuesday met with officials from around the state and the federal government's regional hydropower authority, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), to assess the crisis and prepare to ration water if rains don't come soon.

After two straight years of dry monsoon seasons, area snowpack is down almost 50 percent from normal and reservoirs are down 70 percent from typical winter levels.

In the Columbia River Basin, where dams supply almost 80 percent of Washington's power and huge chunks throughout the West, water supply stands at 59 percent of normal. Replenishing supply would require rain and snow to fall at 1.5 times the normal rates through July.

"That would be an incredible amount," Nichols said.

Under state law, a drought can be declared when water supply is below 75 percent of normal and the shortage is likely to create "undue hardships" for water users.

State officials could begin by reallocating water within the farm sector, which uses a whopping 75 percent of Washington's water.

The state may encourage farmers of low-value crops like hay to sell or lease their water rights to support perennial crops like apples, which take years to establish and yield crops for many more.

Emergency orders could be accompanied by state or federal aid, according to a report from the governor's office.

The state has already begun encouraging voluntary power and water conservation measures and many area businesses and government agencies have reduced consumption.

Drought Threatens Washington State Hydropower, Salmon
Environmental News Network, February 21, 2001

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