Dry Spring Spells Trouble Woes in Calif.

In the mountains of the Pacific Northwest this week, snow pack measurements are revealing a growing problem in the pursuit of more electricity.

They are predicting low Sierra Nevada snowpack levels throughout the summer in California, which depends heavily on runoff to power hydroelectric plants.

Energy shortages led to thousands of blackouts in the state for two consecutive days last month.

The monthly Sierra snowpack survey showed the snow's water content at only 50 percent of normal levels, and forecasters said the odds were slim that it would fully rebound.

"Looking at the north Sierra precipitation index since 1922, the odds of us getting back to normal are about 1-in-10," said Bill Mork, climatologist for the state Department of Water Resources.

But Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokesman John Tremayne said it was premature to forecast the entire rainy season.

"Last year about this time, we were in worse condition and we ended up above normal," he said. "It's not like the Pacific Northwest where they get rain every day. We get five to eight major storms each year that gives us the majority of our rain. Sometimes they're early, sometimes they're late."

No Capping of Prices

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham rejected pleas from Western governors Friday to cap wholesale utility prices to protect consumers should the power crisis spread. He said a cap could discourage conservation and worsen problems this summer, when power demands rise more than 30 percent.

Abraham also said he would allow the Feb. 7 expiration of an order that required utilities to sell surplus power to California.

The order was imposed in mid-December by former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. It had been extended by Abraham.

A number of the governors, including Oregon's John Kitzhaber and Washington's Gary Locke, are demanding that the federal government impose limits on electricity rate increases.

Kitzhaber said "controlling these crippling prices is something concrete and tangible that the federal government can do now."

PG&E and Southern California Edison say the power crisis has left them $12.7 billion in debt, on the verge of bankruptcy and unable to buy power on credit from wary wholesalers who fear they will never be paid for it.

The power situation is blamed on the state's 1996 energy deregulation law that forced Edison and PG&E, which serve nearly 9 million residential and business customers, to sell their power plants and buy wholesale electricity, but blocked them from raising their rates when wholesale prices soared over the past several months.

The price increases were caused by a number of factors, including water shortages in the Pacific Northwest that left hydroelectric power in short supply, a number of aging power plants being taken out of production for repairs and maintenance, and transmission line troubles.

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