The torrents of water pounding through the Missouri River's six dams are generating surplus electricity for utilities across the upper Great Plains, but ratepayers can mostly forget about seeing any benefit on their monthly bills.
Utility officials say power prices already are low, and the federal agency that markets the electricity has to make up losses from years of drought.
"From a long-term standpoint, this will help us, but right now the (electric power) market is depressed," said Vic Simmons, general manager of Rushmore Electric Power Cooperative in Rapid City, S.D.
Electric demand is "probably at the lowest part of the year right now," Simmons said. "There's no grain drying, there's no irrigation, there's no air conditioning going yet."
Heavy spring rains in western states and a mammoth Rocky Mountain snowpack have set up the Missouri River for a summer of flooding, with temporary levees being thrown up and permanent dikes checked along the river's length.
Water is being released from the Missouri's dams at unprecedented rates. At the Garrison Dam, which holds back Lake Sakakawea about 75 miles northwest of Bismarck, the discharge will approach 150,000 cubic feet of water per second in mid-June, the highest volume ever and more than nine times the rate of a year ago.
Enough water is powering through the dam to meet Bismarck's normal summer water needs for nearly a week in a single minute. Of more interest to utilities, the water flowing across all six dams will produce about 14 billion kilowatt-hours of power this year. That's 40 percent greater than the dams' normal output, and enough to supply almost 1.3 million homes for a year.
The Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency that sells the power to rural electric cooperatives, municipal utilities, Indian tribes and other customers, is not planning to change its electric rates until 2015, said Jennifer Neville, an agency spokeswoman in Lakewood, Colo.
Western provides electricity to about 11 million homes in 15 states, including North Dakota and South Dakota, California, Utah, Arizona and parts of Minnesota, Iowa and Texas.
It serves more than 30 North Dakota utilities, including Basin Electric Power Cooperative, a Bismarck-based company that itself provides wholesale electric power to rural utilities in nine states, and several North Dakota municipal electric companies, including the cities of Valley City, Cavalier, Hillsboro, Lakota and Northwood.
Since January 2008, Western's rates have included a surcharge to cover losses over most of the previous decade's drought. Less hydropower meant WAPA had to augment its power supplies by buying costlier electricity on the open market.
The agency hopes to close the deficit and drop the surcharge by September 2017. This year's extra revenues will help Western recoup its drought costs more quickly, "which ideally will create downward pressure on the firm power rates in the future," Neville said. "But it's difficult to predict how fast, or how much."
Russell Carlson, who farms 15 miles southeast of Jamestown with his brother, Richard, said he didn't expect a windfall from this summer's big uptick in hydroelectric power because he knows WAPA's recent history.
"If they make a little money, this is going to be a chance for them to get back even," Carlson said.
Dave Teigen, who farms near Rugby in north-central North Dakota, said farmers are sensitive to power expenses.
"One really nice thing about WAPA power is that the price is very stable and it's low," Teigen said. "It's just as vital as diesel fuel or seed or any other input we have to buy ... Everything we do needs electricity in the beginning."
Katie Werner, the city auditor in Cavalier, in North Dakota's northeastern corner, is taking the long view since Cavalier operates its own municipal electric utility.
The prospect of lower electric costs could "give us at least one good thing coming out of all of this flooding," she said. "If the flood could eventually give us lower power rates, that sure would be nice."