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Sunday, March 25, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mindy Cameron / Guest columnist

The water/power ties that bind the region

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BOUNDARY DAM - Deep in a limestone cavern in a remote corner of Washington state, Seattle city employees are scrambling.

Lights are flashing on the control panel. The operator is out of his chair peering through a glass window into a gymnasium-sized space below. The upper portions of the dam's five turbines are visible there, but hold no clues. The operator has a phone to his ear, trying to determine why two of those turbines, which were producing 200 megawatts of power, suddenly stopped.

'Communicator of the Year'

The Seattle Chapter of the Association for Women in Communications will present its first annual "Communicator of the Year" award to Mindy Cameron on April 4 at the group's Spring Seminar on the UW campus. For information, call 206-654-2929.

It's a hectic morning at this Seattle City Light hydropower plant in the Selkirk Mountains. Urban customers who rely on power generated here are 400 miles away, oblivious to the day's drama. In fact, it's a safe bet most Seattleites don't even know this plant exists, let alone that it supplies half of the city's power. In normal years, that is.

As we all know by now, this is not a normal year. There is not enough water stored in the Pend Oreille River drainage - mountains of Northeast Washington, the Idaho Panhandle and Western Montana - to keep the turbines at Boundary Dam operating at full capacity. Snowpack in the region ranges from 50 to 70 percent.

It's the mud season here, but on this crisp March day the sky is so big and blue, the dirty slush and spongy ground underfoot hardly matter. It is a perfect day to drive through the scenic Pend Oreille River valley, up Highway 20, then Route 31, past Cusick, Ione and Metaline.

I came to Boundary Dam for more than the scenery. It is one of four dams on the Pend Oreille River as it makes its journey from Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho into Washington state and its namesake county, then heads north to just past the U.S.-Canada border, where it empties into the Columbia River. The Pend Oreille is less famous than other Northwest rivers, but it's no piker, contributing one-third of all the water in the region's greatest river system, the Columbia.

I had a selfish interest in learning how Boundary Dam operates. This will be the first summer I spend entirely at my cabin on Lake Pend Oreille. Could it be, I wondered, that a regionwide drought and energy demands in Seattle would conspire to keep the lake from lapping at my dock? Would the water in my Bottle Bay be sucked through the energy straw to keep computers humming in the city?

The operator of Albeni Dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam that regulates the lake level, had assured residents the lake would reach its ordinary summer level. But he also said it might not stay there long as demands grow for fish spawning and downstream power generation.

At Boundary, Operations Chief Gary Baird was unambiguous. "We don't place any demand on that water," he said. "We get what Albeni releases."

Even so, I'm not counting on usual high water this summer. But I won't be blaming my friends in Seattle. We are in this together, Northwesterners all, intricately linked across geographical distances and differences by our rivers, our lifelines.

That truth was sharply etched last Monday morning when the turbines at Boundary Dam abruptly stopped. Operators soon learned the dam had been knocked off line by an equipment failure at a BPA switchyard south of Colville.

That is no small matter. Even in this low-water year, water is flowing in these early weeks of the runoff season. When that water is not used to create energy, it fills the pool behind the dam, and there is only so much room there.

"We were only an hour away from having to spill water," Baird told me the next day. Water spilled is energy wasted. "That would be a crime this season," he said.

And very expensive. Back in Seattle, Mike Sinowitz, director of power marketing for City Light, had to act fast. "To lose a full plant is very unusual," he said. The first hour, he was able to transfer the load to other hydro projects in the system, Ross and Diablo dams.

For the second hour, he bought 135 megawatts on the spot market at $350 a megawatt, or $47,000 for one hour of electricity. That's a lot of money, but Sinowitz said power would be even more expensive in August. Water left in a reservoir today means less energy bought on the spot market when things really get tough.

And they will get tougher. The same day Boundary Dam went off line, there were rolling blackouts in California. At Boundary Dam, I learned later, creative use of a screwdriver by an inventive electrician got one turbine back on line.

Amazingly, that is the Northwest energy picture today. An energy buyer making quick decisions at his computer. An electrician restoring power with a turn of the screwdriver. An endless appetite by Californians for megawatts from anywhere.

Lacking both water and rational energy policies, we will all have to be as crafty as the energy buyer and the electrician, using our ingenuity and conservation-savvy good sense in countless daily decisions to see the region - and each other - through this thing.

Contact Mindy Cameron at mindycameron@earthlink.com.

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