Low Snowpack, Rain Raise Concerns
by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
The Northwest avoided a power crunch Monday but may not be able to avoid a water shortage next summer.
Rivers, reservoirs and snowpack are significantly lower than average as cold weather chills the region. That means hydropower production could be limited when it's needed most.
And it means the likelihood of multiple complications next spring and summer when fish and irrigators are demanding water from a system that's running dry.
Across the region, snowpack is just under 50 percent of average. In some places, it's been decades since precipitation was so low.
"We are a little concerned," said Dave Henneman, hydrologic technician for the Bureau of Reclamation in Yakima. "That's why we are managing it as tight as we can."
Water managers -- who can face potential crises weekly -- are careful to note it's early to start worrying about 2001. The situation could improve significantly in a week or two.
"There is still opportunity to catch up," said Cindy Henriksen, chief of the Corps of Engineers' Reservoir Control Center in Portland.
But after five or six years of relatively good amounts of water in the Northwest's complex water system, the outlook isn't rosy for irrigators.
And the political scene is much changed since the drought years of the early 1990s because several Columbia Basin populations of salmon, steelhead and bull trout are now protected under the Endangered Species Act.
More than ever, management of the Columbia and its tributaries is restricted by demands for water to protect fish, some of which are expected to return next year in numbers large enough to set modern records. The reasons: good amounts of water in the late 1990s and favorable ocean conditions.
And it's beginning to look like some of those water demands -- for instance, for fish-flow water from Idaho -- will meet their greatest challenge next year.
The upper Snake River's reservoir carryover from the 2000 season was dismal, and snowpack is developing at less than 70 percent of average, said Mark Croghan, hydraulic engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation in Burley, Idaho.
The mammoth Palisades Reservoir near the Idaho-Wyoming border is about a quarter full, and American Falls in south-central Idaho is at about 40 percent.
"We've got our releases pretty much as low as they can go without complicating fisheries issues," Croghan said, noting Idaho Power Co. already has used some of its 2001 reservoir water to produce power to fight the cold. It's not clear yet how the utility plans to meet its fish-flow obligations next summer, he said.
In the Yakima Basin, reservoirs are about 31 percent full. The Yakima River at Kiona was running at about half of the long-term normal flow as managers tried to keep every drop upstream that didn't have to be released to protect fish.
At the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District, assistant manager Don Schramm said that last year also started dry, but that didn't lead to summer water shortages.
This winter, however, is different because Yakima water managers don't have the luxury of good reservoir carryovers from last year to rely on if the snowpack fails to develop.
"The carryover ... helps when you are in a critically short year," Schramm said. "And we are hoping it isn't one of those."
He expressed confidence that the snow shortage will correct itself in December and January. "All indicators are pointing toward a normal winter overall," he said.
But November and December have been anything but normal. The average rainfall at the five major Yakima reservoirs was just over 2 inches on Dec. 10, well off the pace to meet the monthly average of 41.2 inches.
Shortages are widespread. At Mill Creek in Walla Walla, water flow on Monday was less than 10 percent of the long-term normal, and the Walla Walla River was running about half of normal.
The Bonneville Power Administration said November flows on the Columbia River at The Dalles were 69 percent of average and among the lowest in more than 70 years of record keeping.
And the forecast for the Inland Northwest doesn't show much improvement in the water situation in the next 10 days.
"It doesn't look like we are going to have a big system of precipitation," said meteorologist Emilie Nipper at the National Weather Service in Pendleton. "We might just get some spotty showers here and there. It's not going to be a system that gives us 6 inches of snow at one time."
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