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Recent rains have doused talks of severe water shortages

5/8/2005 AP    

Recent rains have doused talk of severe water shortages.

As a result, the most dire forecasts for farmers, salmon, reservoirs and the upcoming fire season have become less dire. Still, officials warn that the situation could change at a moment's notice if the generous showers suddenly dry up.

"Things could spin around on a dime," said hydrologist and meteorologist Kyle Martin of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "We still have to plan for the worst and hope for the best."

One of the largest impact of the recent rain has been on Oregon's reservoirs.

At the end of February, one of the driest months on record, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted that most of the Willamette Basin reservoirs would not fill and warned that fish might be deprived of minimum river flows.

Now, water levels in six of the 10 reservoirs run by the corps have climbed swiftly to near normal levels for this date and are within 10 feet of filling.

Detroit Lake a haven for boating east of Salem rebounded dramatically. In mid-March, water levels stalled at a level about 80 feet below the target for filling. The water has risen more than 70 feet after weeks of rain and runoff.

Officials recently announced that the reservoirs hold enough water for releases to meet the flow levels for winter steelhead spawning and to keep gravel-piled egg nests covered until July.

The outlook for wildfires has also changed for the better. In March, forecasters predicted a fire season of historic proportions developing in the Northwest.

"The predictions were doom and gloom the worst season in recorded history. Now you're not hearing so much talk," said Jim Wrightson, a fire fuel specialist with the U.S. Forest Service at the Mt. Hood National Forest. Wrightson and co-workers had to postpone a prescribed burn this week: "It's just been too wet," he said.

Still, Oregon and Washington face an active fire season, according to the latest federal forecast. The record low snowpack in the mountains is likely to melt away a month earlier than usual, allowing mountain forests more time to dry out.

Farmers, more than any other group, are at the mercy of drought.

Oregon has more acres under irrigation than all but eight states. The water supply outlook is bad enough this year that Gov. Ted Kulongoski has declared a drought emergency in eight counties.

But many farmers have learned to adapt, having endured about six years of lower than normal water supplies.

"On their rougher ground, guys forgo onions and potatoes and raise a crop that takes less water. They rotate those onions and potatoes to better ground," said Monty Culbertson, superintendent of the Owyhee Ditch Company, an irrigation district supplying about 12,500 acres of farmland near Ontario.

Power will remain plentiful as a result of the recent rains but at a cost.

That's in part because the region has inherited a significant power surplus. Average annual electricity demand plummeted after aluminum smelters ceased operating during the big power crisis in 2001.

The exit of that industry turned back the clock on energy demand to the level of 1989 about where it remains today. Meanwhile, new gas-fired energy plants have added thousands of megawatt-hours of generating capacity.

Consumers, however, are likely to see higher prices. The lower supply of hydroelectric power and shift to more expensive gas is driving up wholesale energy costs

Many reservoirs are back on track to reach near-normal elevations.

In the Willamette Basin, at least, gains have allowed agencies to guarantee water releases to boost flow for fish.

Power planners have said all along that even with the certainty of reduced hydropower generation, the region will produce a surplus of electricity.

So why be concerned? Forecasts can go wrong. The wet weather could dry up earlier than usual, leaving the region as bad off as it was a couple of months ago.

"Things could spin around on a dime," said hydrologist and meteorologist Kyle Martin of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "We still have to plan for the worst and hope for the best." The commission represents four tribes with treaty rights to salmon.

 

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