BPA Water Planners Aren't Celebrating Just Yet

By Tom Bacon

The people who run the sprawling Columbia River water system are giving the current water supply outlook a thumbs up. But they also have their fingers crossed.

Bonneville Power Administration hydrologists are still somewhat off balance after a roller coaster winter - from a so-so December to an alarming drought in early February to deluges of rain and snow last month. So heavy was precipitation in the Columbia basin in March that the water supply surged 25-million acre feet. That pumped the water supply up to 104 percent of average, letting BPA executives relax, wipe their brows and - for the moment - drop talk of cost containment planning for the dry summer months.

But water supply is only half the picture. The other half is what the BPA specialists call the "shape: of the runoff from snowmelt. The ideal shape, they say, is slow, steady melting to keep rivers feeding the Columbia full and flowing well into August.

They know, however, that it takes only a few too many warm, rainy days in the country east of the Cascades to turn too much snow into too much water too quickly in May and June. If that happens, it can turn the fish, financial and power outlook much more challenging much more quickly.

Planning specialists for the BPA point out that their principal reservoir is snowpack - and they have no control over how fast or how slow that melts. In 2011, for example, snow kept falling well into May. But last year, the snow pack began disappearing in early spring.

This year? Right now, things look good, but planners are fastening their seat belts.
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