Thursday, July 01, 2004

Dry Rainy Season Could Lead to Power Pinch

One of the State's "renewable" energy sources is, of all things, water. In the mountains above Fresno, Southern California Edison and PG&E have complex hydroelectric facilities where rain and snowmelt, combined with gravity, turn nature's forces into electricity for the rest of us. Edison's Big Creek facility, for example, was build to power Los Angeles' Red Car system decades ago, and has become one of their major sources of power since.

Well, things aren't looking so good, as the rainy season in the San Joaquin Valley was among the driest on record.

"It was like summer in March," said Walt Ward, the Modesto Irrigation District's assistant general manager for water operations.

The MID had measured 8.56 inches of rain as of Wednesday, the last day of the rainfall season. Assuming no rain fell through midnight, the season was the driest in 13 years -- about 4 inches below average.

Snowmelt began earlier than anyone at the MID could remember. The runoff, carried in the Tuolumne River, ended up in Don Pedro Reservoir, but the water level did not necessarily go up. The MID and its partner, the Turlock Irrigation District, had to let water out to keep the reservoir's level no higher than 801.9 feet above sea level through April 27.

In this way, the Army Corps of Engineers assures that the reservoir has adequate space for flood protection in the event of spring storms.

"If it (melted) later in the year we could capture more of it," spokeswoman Kate Hora said. "It's an issue of timing."

And that timing may not be so good for California's energy prospects as the dog days of summer approaches. No snowmelt later in the year will mean less water in the reservoirs--and less hydroelectric power for you and me, meaning the State would have to turn to other sources (coal, natural gas, wind) or face brown-outs.