Pacific Northwest Struggles Without Rain

The Pacific Northwest is known for pounding, consistent rain.

Without that rain the region could be headed for catastrophic power shortages and massive rate increases. California Governor Gray Davis met with President Clinton today and asked for an extension to ease his state’s energy crisis and prevent imminent blackouts. Farther north in Tacoma, residents are shelling out more money during their state’s power crisis. The Pacific Northwest may have to rely on California to supply them with power since the area’s resources are thinning.

Roughly 80 percent of all power used in the Northwest comes from hydroelectricity. Because there’s usually so much rain in the region, residents have enjoyed some of the lowest rates in the nation. But that, like the constant rain, has come to an end, at least for now.

“The situation now I would consider an emergency as far as we’re concerned,” said Mark Crisson, president of Tacoma Public Utilities.

This year, the reservoirs that feed the dams needed to produce this power have nearly dried up. Dams and reservoirs have reached the driest point they’ve seen in 70 years, according to officials. Forecasts do not call for more rain in the area this winter, either.

“Across Washington State reservoirs are reaching levels not ever seen before,” Crisson said.

Lights Out in Tacoma

Without hydroelectric power, utilities are being forced to buy electricity on the open market where prices have soared largely due to power shortages in California. As a result, utilities in cities like Tacoma, Washington have raised rates nearly 50 percent to keep up with the costs. The rate hikes are forcing residents to shut off their lights and to turn down their thermostats.

“I don’t want to use all my money that I should normally use for food to pay an electric bill,” said Tacoma resident Evelyn Undziakiewicz.

There is an aggressive campaign by congressional delegations and the governors from Washington and Oregon to get federal relief from the power rate problems in the Northwest. Washington Gov. Gary Locke is angry that the Federal Regulatory Commission has protected California rate payers by placing a cap on wholesale power rates there but refused to do the same for other customers in the West. Locke, and the others, believe Washington rate payers are paying for California’s problems.

“Frankly, the Federal Regulatory Commission has left West Coast customers twisting in the wind,” Crisson said.

Rain is Best Solution

Mel White, president of C and C Containers Corp., a bottling plant, has brought in diesel generators to cut costs. At his Tacoma-based plant, lights are turned off in offices and the rest of the plant uses only bare lighting to keep costs at a minimum.

“The situation must change for us to stay in business,” he said. “I think over the next few months you’re going to see a lot of smaller companies declare bankruptcy, have a lot more layoffs.”

In a normal year up to 25 percent of the Northwest’s power during the winter months comes from California. Producers there are borrowing on pollution credits for next year to ramp up production but power managers here don’t expect much help from the South in the next month or two.

The best solution is more rain which would help bring the hydroelectric facilities back to capacity. But history has shown that when there is a dry November and December then there is only a 10 percent to 15 percent chance of a wet January and February.

The worst case scenario is extreme cold weather with no rain, which would mean extremely high rates and the possibility of rolling blackouts.

ABCNEWS’ Mike Gudgell and Ray Homer contributed to this report.