A drought doesn’t just mean less water. It also means less power.
On the Columbia and Snake rivers, where infrequent rains and an almost nonexistent snowpack have led to parched waterways and dangerous fire conditions, the amount of hydroelectric energy generated by government dams has dropped by almost one-third.
Last May, 23 dams on the Columbia and its major tributaries produced 8.59 million megawatts of power, according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
This year, during the same timeframe, the dams generated just 5.78 million megawatts.
“Water is our fuel on the hydro system, and there’s just less of it,” Bonneville Power Administration spokesman Joel Scruggs said. “We’re prepared to handle the dry year and we’re hopeful that we’ll see more water. Otherwise we’ll manage accordingly.”
The BPA, a federal agency in charge marketing electricity produced by the dams, provides almost 35 percent of the power in the region.
The system’s portfolio includes major producers such as the Dalles Dam on the Columbia, where the water flow has dropped to roughly 145,000 cubic feet per second, from 235,000 cubic feet this time last year.
That’s primarily due to the lack of snowfall, according to Bill Proctor, chief of hydrologic engineering and power for the northwestern division of the Corps.
It’s not the snow you see on peaks —t hat sort of glacial ice is around all year. Instead, Proctor said, rivers are fed by runoff, usually rain or melted snow. And while precipitation fed the Pacific Northwest river system in the spring, the lack of snowfall at lower elevations has created the second worst runoff situation here in the last 55 years.
So on the Snake, one of Columbia’s major tributaries, streamflow has dropped to an estimated 25,000 cubic feet per second, compared to a normal flow of 54,000. It’s expected to stay that way through the end of the summer.
Both the Corps and the BPA say the drop in power production won’t lead to an immediate rate increase for consumers and businesses.
“The BPA doesn’t change rates every day,” Proctor said. “Their purchase price doesn’t affect your price today. But the rates you’re paying now will affect the rates in the future… when (the BPA) recalculates rates.”
Karl Kanbergs, team leader for the reservoir control center, agreed.
“When resources are scarce, the price goes up. That’s true for anything.”
Scruggs, the BPA spokesperson, said the agency sets rates every two years. He said a prolonged, multiyear drought is a possibility, not a certainty.
“I don’t think we want to play with hypotheticals. We’re concerned with managing the system right now,” he said. “When you’re dependent on the weather, there’s always a lot of uncertainty.”