January 28, 2002

Rainy Weather May Snap Pacific Northwest

From Havoc-Causing Drought of Past Year



After rain fell every day for a month in Portland, Ore., the local newspaper wryly observed: "People who moved to Oregon during the past two years are starting to understand what a rainy winter, with its seemingly unending shades of gray, is really like."

The 34 days of consecutive rainfall in Portland that ended Dec. 22 tied a record set in 1953. The torrent came as part of a season of rain and snow that has saturated the Pacific Northwest since Thanksgiving. Should the wet trend continue as forecasters believe it will, it will snap a one-year drought that wreaked havoc on the region, limiting water for power generation, fish migration and irrigation.

Snowpacks in the Cascades and California's northern Sierra are running at or well above normal. Even in formerly tinder-dry parts of the Montana and Idaho Rockies, snow is now near normal levels.

Officials say the Columbia River Basin, which drains hundreds of miles of streams all across the Northwest and into Canada, is running at about its normal snowpack, compared to half its normal size a year ago. That is good news for the Northwest's vast network of hydroelectric plants, which are fueled by the spring snowmelt. The slowdown during last year's drought exacerbated an energy crisis in California and elsewhere in the West.

"Right now, we're swimming in power around here," says Ed Mosey, spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal marketing agency that gets much of its power from the Columbia's plants.

More water means a better habitat for migrating salmon and other threatened species, alleviating tensions between environmentalists and agriculture interests. "There are a lot of people breathing a sigh of relief right now," says Phil Pasteris, meteorologist with the National Water and Climate Center, a forecasting arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Of course, this being the West, where water wars have flared practically since the first European settlers arrived, even a wet year won't settle all the in-fighting over this scarce resource. Consider the saga of southern Oregon's Klamath Valley, where farmers and ranchers have squared off against environmentalists and the federal government over water set-asides for coho salmon and endangered sucker fish.

For decades, farmers and ranchers had irrigated their fields with water from Upper Klamath Lake, under an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Last April, the bureau turned off the irrigation spigot, diverting the water instead to keep enough water in the lake for the sucker fish and sufficient flows downstream for coho salmon. The decision was made after scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in a biological opinion early last year that the fish needed more water -- leaving practically none for irrigation when the drought hit about the same time.

The one-two punch left about 1,400 farmers and ranchers high and dry last summer, their fields left to turn fallow as some angry land owners protested by wrenching open the headgates to restore some water for irrigation. Security has been stepped up to prevent a recurrence, as both sides in the debate await issuance of a new opinion which will determine how much water can go to the farms and ranches this year.

"We're really optimistic we'll have more water, because we're way ahead in precipitation this year," says Klamath rancher Mike Byrne, where the snowpack in the southern Oregon Cascades has been running as much as 140% above normal.

Environmentalists say, not so fast. They argue that even in a wet year like this, the amount of water set aside for fish should be increased, to help replicate the natural fluctuations of the Northwest's once-mighty rivers. They say that historically, too much water has been allotted for irrigation, causing marshes and other habitat to suffer along with the fish.

"There never will be as much water for agriculture as there has been in the past," says Wendell Wood, a field representative for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, a Portland-based environmental group.

But after last year's drought, most Northwesterners will take what they can get. With many parts of the region receiving their lowest precipitation in recorded times, the Northwest's water-dependent economy was hard hit. Oregon officials estimate as much as $100 million in agricultural losses in that state alone, for example, while energy prices soared as the big Columbia reservoirs that help generate as much as three-quarters of the region's electricity ran at half full. Salmon-restoration efforts also were dealt a body blow, as some of the water normally reserved to aid the endangered fish were used instead to power plant turbines.

Beginning in late October, though, the spigot opened and hasn't let up much since. Portland, for instance, had been inundated with about 22 inches of precipitation as of Friday since Oct. 1, compared with a record low of 23 inches for all of last year; normal annual precipitation would be 38 inches, according to the National Weather Service. Towering above Portland, 11,245-feet Mount Hood was blanketed with a near-record 18 feet of snow as a new Pacific storm bore down late last week.

"And keep in mind," says Cindy Henriksen, chief of reservoir control for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Portland, "average in any year is pretty good around here."

Write to Jim Carlton at jim.carlton@wsj.com1

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Updated January 28, 2002 12:01 a.m. EST

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