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Light Snowpack Adds to Worries About Electricity

January 05, 2001|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The mountain snowpack that ultimately feeds household water taps and drives California's hydropower turbines is less than half the norm for this time of year, water officials said Thursday after taking the first official measurements of the season.

With winter just beginning, water watchers say it's too early to raise red flags. But if the West Coast dry spell continues, it could add to the state's electricity problems.

California gets roughly 23% of its power from hydroelectricity generated in and out of state.

"If we have a dry year, all we're going to do is make [the energy] supply that much tighter," said Patrick Dorinson of the California Independent System Operator, which oversees the state's power grid.

"If anybody knows any kind of rainmaking rituals, we should start them," he added.

Similarly, the agency that supplies much of the Pacific Northwest and some of California with hydroelectricity is predicting that because of a dry fall, its system will have about 25% less runoff than normal by the end of the rainy season.

"Unless Mother Nature treats us kindly in the next 30 to 60 days, we're going to be hard pressed" to meet energy demands and maintain water flows required for salmon, said Ed Mosey, spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration.

California water officials emphasize that the precipitation shortfall could be recouped in the next several months.

Last year at this time, the Sierra Nevada snowpack was even drier than it is now, but by the end of the season it had climbed to above normal.

And federal weather forecasters say overall weather conditions suggest that this winter will see an average amount of rain and snow.

The effects of El Nino and La Nina--which altered Pacific Ocean water temperatures and weather patterns--have dissipated.

"There's no reason to think it's going to be dry forever this winter," said National Weather Service meteorologist Tim McClung.

But so far, there have been an awful lot of sunny days.

Remote sensors scattered around the Sierra and the southern Cascades in California show the snowpack to be 40% of the historical norm for early January.

It was 52% at the spot just west of Lake Tahoe where state Department of Water Resources snow surveyors took the first official measurement of the season Thursday, said department spokesman Jeff Cohen.

Snowpack refers not to snow depth, but to the snow's water content, critical to runoff that swells mountain streams and rivers and the reservoirs they supply.

Despite the season's dry start, California's overall water picture remains good, thanks to previous wet years.

Gary Bardini, chief forecaster for the water resources department, said most reservoir levels are about where they should be for this time of year, or higher.

Nor has the dry spell hurt California's hydropower generation, because the state typically produces most of its hydroelectricity later in the year.

But that picture could grow dimmer if storms don't move in.

"The more snow the better," said Pacific Gas & Electric spokesman Jon Tremayne. "There's no denying a good hydro year is needed to help next summer," when electricity demand will peak in California.

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