* Drought brings villagers back to flooded church
* Third largest hydro plant at 10 percent capacity
* Low water levels threaten electricity collapse
By Charlie Devereux
POTOSI, Venezuela, Feb 24 (Reuters) - For most Venezuelans, the El Nino-linked drought that has struck the country this year means inconveniences like power and water rationing.
But for some, the extreme dry spell is stirring up bittersweet memories. The Uribante reservoir that feeds a hydroelectric dam here is at its lowest level in decades, and the receding waters have uncovered a village that has been mostly underwater since 1985, when it was flooded.
Former town resident Josefa Garcia, 74, is grateful for the drought, even though it has triggered Venezuela’s worst-ever electricity crisis.
Standing in the shadow of a usually submerged 85-foot-high (26-metre-high) high church here, Garcia vividly recalls when then-President Carlos Andres Perez swooped in by helicopter to tell residents the town would soon be flooded.
“He said we’d all be expropriated and we had to leave,” Garcia said, standing in the old village square. “It took our hope away.”
Before its flooding, this Andean town of around 1,200 in the western state of Tachira was evacuated and its residents dispersed around the country. Garcia moved to a nearby region, and had never revisited her former town until now.
Normally, only the church spire can be seen jutting out of the 4,900-acre (20-square-km) reservoir. But water levels recently fell 98 feet (30 m), revealing eerie remnants: the church, demolished houses, a cemetery, a square.
The spire usually serves as a depth gauge for the water reservoir, whose falling levels are a grim reminder of electricity shortages across the country.
President Hugo Chavez earlier this month declared an electricity emergency in Venezuela, where hydropower usually accounts for 68 percent of electricity generation. The crisis provoked one state electricity company to organize a meeting among its workers to pray for an end to the crisis.
“We have been observing with preoccupation over the last week the reduction in water supplies to the dam,” said Juan Barillas, president of the state company that manages the dam.
The reservoir is now within 10 feet (3 m) of its “critical level” to feed power turbines. Its Leonardo Ruiz Pineda hydroelectric plant, the third largest in Venezuela, is operating at under 10 percent of its 300 MW/hour capacity, to keep water levels from falling further.
The plant may soon be forced to further slash generation, Barillas said, since there is little rain in the regional forecast. The reservoir now appears to be falling faster than a 0.4-inch (1-cm) per day average rate earlier this month.
A recent report by Edelca, one of the state water companies, warned of a national electricity grid collapse by May unless drastic measures are taken. Chavez has said the country’s largest hydroelectric dam, Guri, could reach critical level in June if the drought continues.
In response, the government has launched a campaign to get Venezuelans to save power, fining those who fail to cut back. Industry has been asked to cut by 20 percent, and power and water rationing are being imposed in much of the country.
In the region of Potosi, residents are getting used to rationing measures of an average of 2.5 hours per day since January, which helped slow the drop in reservoir levels.
This year’s El Nino — an intermittent climate cycle characterized by warming in the waters of the Central and Eastern Pacific — has interrupted normal weather patterns in several world regions, and meteorologists link Venezuela’s drought to the phenomenon.
But engineers here were also alarmed by a 3 degree Celsius average temperature rise this year in the dam reservoir, which they linked to deforestation, global warming and a longer-term fall in water levels throughout the region.
Writing by Joshua Schneyer in Caracas; Editing by Cynthia Osterman