With Drawdown, Fruit Farmers Scramble To Irrigate From Lowered Columbia River

Mar 21, 2014

Dam engineers are working to determine the severity of the crack in the Wanapum Dam’s spillway.

But the drawdown of the spillway to relieve pressure on the ailing structure is having some real consequences for the region’s farmers, tourism hubs and Northwest tribes.

Out Of Reach

Frosty Hansen, 74, tends 900 acres of cherry orchards and beef cattle on land that runs from high rocky bluffs right down to the Columbia River shore. That’s where he pumps out irrigation water for his valuable trees.

Frosty Hansen says many of his neighbors can't reach the Columbia River with their irrigation pipes.
Frosty Hansen says many of his neighbors can't reach the Columbia River with their irrigation pipes.
Credit Anna King

But now, his and possibly thousands of other acres of Washington’s fruit trees are in trouble.

Down by the river, the leftover muck makes clear where the water used to stand before the dam cracked. Since then, the water had to be lowered about 25 feet.

Hansen has two big pumps that still reach the water. But his neighbors’ pipes stop short. Hansen’s plan is to pump irrigation water for them until the dam is fixed.

“I am thankful that I have the facilities to help everyone," said Hansen. "My neighbors helped me when my ferret barn and hog barn burnt down, now it’s my turn to help them now.”

Some farmers must lay hundreds of feet of new pipe to reach water again. They have to get state and federal permits, and time is running out.

Workers are already in the orchards, and farmers already need large amounts of water to spray chemicals and protect delicate blossoms from frost.

And soon, hot and dry weather will mean they’ll need even more water for irrigation.

Hit To Tourism

Charlotte Gonzales helps run the Texaco right off Interstate 90 in Vantage. This highway and Columbia River intersection is usually a popular break spot for travelers and tourists looking to cool off in the river. So far, the low water has meant increased business from gawkers who haven’t seen such low water levels since the 1960s.

Gonzales is seeing about 40 percent more sales than typical for this time of year. But come summer, she says there won't be any boating access to the Wanapum reservoir.

"It will affect the people who come down to play on the shoreline," Gonzales said. "They won’t be able to do that, either.”

A bluff overlooking the Columbia River near Vantage, Wash. Native Americans in Washington state are deeply concerned about the more than 80 miles of sandy shore that has been exposed. Already two very old skeletons have been found.
A bluff overlooking the Columbia River near Vantage, Wash. Native Americans in Washington state are deeply concerned about the more than 80 miles of sandy shore that has been exposed. Already two very old skeletons have been found.
Credit Anna King

Just downriver from Vantage, on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Columbia River near the Wanapum Dam, the scope of the problem snaps into focus. The ailing dam’s drawdown has exposed miles of sandy beaches and rocky shoals.

The low water has even revealed two gravesites so far. And a small band of Native Americans and government employees are working overtime to protect those and more that might surface.

Teams of engineers say they are doing all they can at the Wanapum Dam. They’re drilling concrete core samples to find out just how bad the crack is. But it could take months to fix. And farmers, tourist spots and Northwest tribes are worried they can’t last that long with low, low water.