Dry Sierra snowpack may mean one-third less power this summer

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Posted at 2:36 p.m. PST Friday, March 30, 2001

Dry Sierra snowpack may mean one-third less power this summer

SACRAMENTO (AP) -- California's efforts to avert blackouts this summer faced a new setback Friday as low snowpack measurements in the Sierra dried up hopes for plentiful hydroelectricity.

California draws about a fourth of its power from in-state hydroelectric plants.

The low Sierra Nevada snowpack means California's hydroelectric production may fall more than a third below normal this summer, said Maury Roos, California's chief hydrologist.

That's because California relies heavily on winter rain and snow to fill reservoirs for summer, when precipitation is scarce.

``This is a blow from Mother Nature,'' said Christy Dennis, a spokeswoman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the state's biggest utility.

California already expected little hydroelectric power from the drought-stricken Pacific Northwest to help power grid operators keep the lights on.

California has struggled with high wholesale power costs and a tight supply for months, due in part to power plant maintenance and scarce Northwest hydroelectricity. The state was under a Stage 2 electricity alert Friday as reserves fell to around 5 percent.

Despite the low snow levels, Roos said groundwater levels are healthy, so there is no reason to declare a drought anywhere but in the Klamath Range of Northwestern California, which is ``desperately dry.''

Overall, the state is simply experiencing its first dry year after six wet winters, Roos said.

The Department of Water Resources' sensors showed the Sierra Nevada snowpack at about 60 percent of average Friday, spokesman Jeff Cohen said.

The snow is about 70 percent of normal north of Lake Tahoe, but about 55 percent of normal from Lake Tahoe south to the headwaters of the San Joaquin River, he said.

South of there the snowpack is about 65 percent of normal, he said.

The snow was only a few feet deep at Echo Summit, less than half the normal depth, Cohen said.

``It looks more like the conditions at the end of April than at the end of March,'' he said. ``There's just a very, very slim chance of this picking up in April. It's just not in the cards.''

Things worsen farther north.

``It's not a pretty situation'' throughout the West, said John Harrison of the Northwest Power Planning Council that serves Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

``It's unlikely there will be any power to ship south,'' Harrison said.

PG&E is particularly concerned about having enough water for its 1,100-megawatt Helms Project plant in the Sierra east of the San Joaquin Valley, spokeswoman Dennis said. The plant produces enough power for roughly 825,000 households.

``Helms alone has enough electricity to provide power to San Francisco,'' she said.

Northern California in particular is dependent on hydroelectricity in summer, said Lorie O'Donley, a spokeswoman for the Independent System Operator, which oversees California's power grid.

Hydroelectricity is especially useful because storing water behind dams is the equivalent of storing power for use during peak times. Other forms of electricity cannot be stockpiled.

In addition, the water can be recycled, pumped back into its reservoir and used to run the electric turbines again during periods of high demand.

``Peaking power will be at a premium going into those hot days,'' said Steven Conroy, a spokesman for Southern California Edison, the state's second-largest utility.

The low snow levels mean a potential double-whammy for California farmers: tight electricity and water.

State and Central Valley water regulators already have trimmed farmers' irrigation supplies to keep reservoirs full in the event of another dry year, Cohen said.

``This not only means a dismal outlook in terms of hydroelectric production, but it adds to the mountain of problems farmers face,'' said Bob Krauter of the California Farm Bureau.

Farmers will have to draw more groundwater, which is in good shape after six wet years -- but that means using more electricity at prices driven up by the state's power shortage.

Jason Peltier, manager of the Central Valley Project Water Association, said his reservoirs are 115 percent of normal and can survive a low snow year.

However, much of the water isn't available to Central Valley farmers because of environmental restrictions that send it to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, he said.

And Northwestern California's drought means bad news for growers there who depend on irrigation, Peltier said.

``The farmers there are going to get goose eggs,'' he said.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 30, 2001


Maybe Gov. Davis will buy the Sierra Mountains.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 30, 2001.

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