Low snowpack dims California power hopes

Saturday, March 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ New measurements show the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is so low, California's hydroelectric production could fall more than a third below normal this summer.

It's not what state officials already struggling with tight power supplies and worried about blackouts wanted to hear.

California draws about a fourth of its power from in-state hydroelectric plants, which rely on melting snow to fill reservoirs for summer when precipitation is scarce. The dry winter and resulting low snowpack mean power production could drop more than a third below normal, said Maury Roos, the state's chief hydrologist.

``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.

The state has struggled with high wholesale power costs and a tight supply for months, due in part to power plant maintenance and scarce Northwest hydroelectricity. On Friday, it was under a Stage 2 electricity alert 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. He said the snow was only a few feet deep at Echo Summit near Lake Tahoe, less than half the normal depth.

``It looks more like the conditions at the end of April than at the end of March,'' Cohen said. ``There's just a very, very slim chance of this picking up in April.''

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.

The low snow levels mean a potential double-whammy for California farmers. 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.

Farmers will have to draw more groundwater, 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 that water isn't available to Central Valley farmers because of environmental restrictions, he said.

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.