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River Flows Could be Worst Ever

by Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
The Spokesman Review, March 3, 2001

Low rivers won't get much help from snowpack, say forecasters

(Jesse Tinsley) A near record low snowpack in the Couer d'Alene Mountains and other ranges foretells trouble for salmon, irrigators and electricity production. The outlook for Northwest rivers just keeps getting worse.

Late last month, hydrologists predicted that this would be the fourth-driest year on record, in terms of the amount of water flowing down the Snake and Columbia.

That dropped to second-driest in the forecast issued this week by the Northwest River Forecast Center. River flow at The Dalles Dam on the lower Columbia River is expected to be just 55 percent of normal.

Even that prediction may be overly rosy.

Federal hydrologist Don Laurine said this year will be the worst ever if precipitation doesn't return soon to normal -- something that doesn't seem likely.

Already, the rivers are carrying less water than in 1977, the only time snowpack was worse. That's because 2000 was drier than 1976.

It's bad news for people who play on Northwest lakes and rivers, particularly reservoirs such as Lake Roosevelt. They're already low and continuing to drop.

The prediction is bad news for salmon and irrigators. And it's bad news for anyone who uses electricity, since most of the Northwest's power is generated by dams.

Power managers note that the Northwest has grown considerably since 1977, so the demand for power has increased, as well. Wholesale energy prices are soaring this year, thanks to industry deregulation in California. Bonneville Power Administration officials have warned that they can't afford to buy power if the region's dams don't produce enough to meet demand.

Electricity prices have been so low in recent years that there's been little investment in new power generators or energy conservation efforts.

The gloomy news may seem unlikely to many Spokane residents. The city this week set a record for the most consecutive days with snow on the ground.

But it's the same snow that was here in November.

"The snowpack around the (Columbia River) basin is ranging from 50 to 60 percent of normal," said Jim Ruff, hydrologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Around Spokane, it's 45 percent."

As a Northwesterner, Laurine said he's worried about the summer. But as a scientist, he's fascinated by the phenomenon of drought.

"It's almost like a flood," he said. "If you're a hydrologist, you get very exited about this stuff."

Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
River Flows Could be Worst Ever
Spokesman Review, March 3, 2001

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