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Lack of water may hurt electric supply next summer

If state water levels don't rise by summer, hydropower could falter, and extra pumping of groundwater could strain the supply of electricity.CALIFORNIA'S ENERGY CRISIS


Energy is getting all the attention right now. But California may soon be facing a different crisis: water.

After an unprecedented run of six wetter-than-normal winters, California suddenly finds itself with a Sierra Nevada snowpack that is half the historical average for this time of year. Statewide, overall precipitation levels are lower than at any time since 1994.

On Friday, state water officials measuring snow levels near Lake Tahoe concluded the snowpack across the Sierra is 51 percent of normal. A day earlier, State Water Project officials announced they may have to cut water deliveries to farms and cities to 20 percent of their contracted amounts this year -- the lowest level since 1991.

There's still hope among water experts that February and March will bring new storms to help fill reservoirs. Yet more than in previous years, energy experts are also hoping for rain. Why?

A dry summer this year could mean major headaches for the Golden State because water and power are so intertwined.

In stark terms, rain now may be needed to keep the lights on in July and August.

``Water and power are inextricably linked,'' said Earle Cummings, a spokesman for the state Department of Water Resources in Sacramento. ``A shortage in water creates a shortage in power.''

Hydropower provides 23 percent of California's electricity. Without enough water in reservoirs to turn turbines, or without enough water in rivers to flow through powerhouses at high volumes, the amount of electricity produced by hydropower plants will fall, say experts.

At the same time, to keep faucets running, cities and farmers would have to pump more water from groundwater basins, which puts more strain on the state's already overtaxed electricity system right in the middle of the summer months, when demand is highest.

Such a spiral this summer could force California into some very hard choices.

``In a drought year, you have competing demands for water,'' said Lon House, an energy adviser to the Association of California Water Agencies.

``Is it better to hold water in reservoirs for cities and farms, or is it better to generate power with? Is it better to irrigate crops early in the summer or hold it until later in the year to generate power?''

The lack of rain is already taking a toll on power production.

Normally, hydropower in California produces up to 10,000 megawatts of electricity -- enough for 10 million homes. But right now, with many reservoirs low, it is delivering only half that, said Jim Detmers, managing director of operations for the California Independent System Operator (ISO).

It's dry to the north too

Add to that unusually dry years in Washington and Oregon, which are reducing the amount of power those states have on hand to ship south from huge dams on the Columbia River.

``The water guys are nervous, and the electric guys are nervous,'' said Detmers.

Even without a dry summer, California is facing an energy shortfall. With a dry summer, that shortfall gets worse.

According to the ISO, the state faces a shortfall of about 3,000 megawatts of electricity this summer. But in a dry year, that shortfall nearly doubles, because hundreds of cities and farms pumping water from underground will use an estimated additional 2,000 megawatts, according to a study by House. Add to that the loss of 500 megawatts more from reduced hydropower production.

``If we were fat and happy, it wouldn't be that big of a concern,'' said House. ``But when you're right on the margin, right near blackouts, little bits can push you over. And this is a pretty large bit.''

Although water experts around the state are buzzing with speculation about whether state and federal agencies are already drawing down reservoirs unusually low to keep the lights on, those agencies say they are not.

Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the dry year has meant federal managers are keeping more water behind the huge dams of the Central Valley Project now than last year, rather than running it out for power production. The project, a massive system of canals, reservoirs and pumps, provides much of the water for Central Valley farmers.

Those dams generated about 25 percent less power this December than last December, for example.

``We will do what we can to help the state with electricity,'' said McCracken. ``But we have obligations for that water. If we pump it all out of the reservoirs to get power, we'll create a drought.''

Because of the lack of rain and snow, the bureau has told farmers to expect only 35 percent of the water this year they have contracted for. Cities have been told to expect 75 percent.

Things are much the same at California's other huge water delivery system, the State Water Project. That project, a 662-mile system of canals, dams and pumps that runs from Plumas County to Riverside County, is not drawing down its reservoirs faster than normal to keep the lights on, said Cummings, the spokesman for the Department of Water Resources.

``We're trying to be prudent with water and power,'' he said. ``We wouldn't risk either resource to force availability of the other.''

Relief unlikely this week

Rainfall could increase, but forecasts don't look good.

``There's nothing happening for the next 10 days,'' said Bill Mork, state climatologist with the state Department of Water Resources. ``We're hoping beyond that the weather will be favorable. Things are pretty poor right now.''

So far this winter, just 14.3 inches of precipitation has fallen in the Northern Sierra, the most important water region of the state. That's 52 percent of normal for this time of year. The region includes the watersheds of the American, Yuba, Feather and Shasta rivers, all of which feed the major reservoirs that collect water in Northern California to be pumped south throughout the year.

The State Water Project delivers water to 22 million people in San Jose, Los Angeles and other cities, as well as to 1 million acres of farmland.

Reduced deliveries this year won't mean water rationing for most cities, however.

In normal years, Santa Clara County gets about 50 percent of its water from groundwater pumping. The rest comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta, from the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.

Mike DiMarco, a spokesman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, said San Jose will do fine for a year pumping groundwater.

But if there is a second year, things could get tricky, he said.

``The way the weather situation and power situation are playing out, there's no better time to remember you have to use water wisely. Don't waste it.''

Contact Paul Rogers at or (408) 920-5045.

-- Martin Thompson (, February 04, 2001

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