Dramatically lowered water behind the damaged Wanapum Dam in eastern Washington means boaters are out of luck this Memorial Day on that stretch of the Columbia River.
But people who own vacation homes upstream from Wanapum, at Sunland Estates, say they are getting creative for the long weekend.
The drop in the Columbia River has produced a moonscape of vast sandy islands and miles of mudflats.
It’s all clearly visible from Eugene and Karen Penix’s second-story deck — and all that sand has been blowing into their yard. Penix said he and his neighbors have been fighting back that silt with troops of leaf blowers.
For the long weekend the Penix family has stocked up on a lot of chips, burgers and hot dogs.
They have also stocked up on patience. “You know Americans, they just won’t give up. People are buying these kind of almost portable swimming pools made of vinyl,” Penix said with a laugh. “And that’s kind of a new thing.”
Plus, Penix said wineries, the Gorge concerts and the eastern Washington sun are all good distractions.
The Columbia River will remain drawn down at least until June because of the cracked Wanapum Dam in southeast Washington.
That means fish can’t reach their traditional ladders, so now hundreds of Chinook salmon are being rounded up and loaded into tanker trucks to hitch a ride around the problem.
A short-term solution
Engineers are working on extensions and “water slides” to get fish ladders at the dam working again. But work to install this new equipment has been difficult with cranes, man baskets and the whipping Columbia River wind.
“You’re up here now and it’s kind of a nice cool breeze. But imagine it with 60 to 70 mile per hour gusts,” says Grant County utility district’s Thomas Stredwick. “And workers and man lifts and trying to haul equipment around — you can see how in pretty short order things can get pretty dicey.”
Workers are installing massive steel structures with wooden slides to help the fish over the dam.
This crew could start to see 12,000 fish collecting per day at the dam in the peak of summer. Already some early migrating fish are forcing a short-term solution that could turn into something longer.
At Priest Rapids Dam, about 20 miles down the Columbia River, Grant County utility district workers are trapping these early migrators so they can be trucked around the dams.
Trucks will fill up with thousands of gallons of river water and about 150 fish per load.
“The most endangered fish we have”
“It’s unthinkable for anyone in the state that we wouldn’t get a salmon run up the river,” says Jeff Korth, a major fish manager for Washington’s Fish and Wildlife.
At the peak of the fish run, Korth’s crew and Grant County utility district employees could be moving about 1,500 fish a day. They’re all hoping that engineers and construction crews can finish fixes on Wanapum and Rock Island dams soon so they won’t have to truck as many fish.
“One thing that’s not fortuitous is that the first run of salmon just happens to be the spring Chinook,” says Korth. “And they are the most endangered fish we have up here. We are going to have to deal with the most critical population, right out of the gate.”
“Never put anything past a fish”
Korth worries that even with the best plans and engineering, working with salmon is still unpredictable.
“That falls under the category that I call never put anything past a fish. If you’re absolutely sure they won’t do something, they’ll end up doing it.”
And if the modified ladder systems don’t work by the time the larger summer run arrives, Korth says, “We’d have to make some very hard decisions. But we’re pretty optimistic we’re not going to get there.”
He adds, “The logistics of hauling something like a half million fish would be pretty difficult.”
Korth says inept ladders would probably mean deciding which runs of salmon to save. Korth says a lot of engineering, policy and sweat has gone into getting salmon past the cracked dam, but we won’t know for at least a few weeks whether all this hard work will pay off.
The drawdown of water behind Wanapum Dam in central Washington is exposing dozens of human gravesites and hundreds of Native American cultural artifacts.
Grant County officials are working overtime to protect these sensitive sites. And that work isn’t cheap.
Grant County utility district says its spending about $600,000 a month protecting 80 miles of Columbia River shore. Sheriff’s deputies, Grant County employees and state Fish and Wildlife officers are patrolling the riverbanks to keep gawkers and illegal looters away.
At the same time, a team of 25 archaeologists is finding and cataloging sites along the river shore.
Grant County utility district’s Chuck Berrie says the area has a high density of ancient human remains.
“We know of over 20 cemeteries now along that stretch of the river. And there is a lot of people that just have no idea its illegal – looting it’s a big deal.”
Utility district officials hope to know the root cause of the dam’s crack around June. By then protecting the shoreline and cultural resources could rack up to more than $2 million.
Officials say it’s not clear yet, if they’ll raise power rates to cover this expense.
Two skeletons found upstream of the cracked Wanapum Dam have been handed over to Northwest tribes.
The remains were found near each other several weeks ago along the newly exposed Columbia River shore.
The state says it has the legislative authority to determine if remains are Native American and then repatriate them to tribes if they are.
But Richard Jantz, a well-known physical anthropologist who fought for a decade in federal court to study Kennewick Man, says it’s unfortunate that Washington state didn’t carbon-date these newfound remains before handing them over.
“We study the remains of Americans of all ethnicities,” says Jantz. “I think everybody loses when we understand less about the past than we might have.”
State experts say their initial studies show that one skeleton is male, the second female. In addition, the female’s skull shows signs of being flattened by a cradleboard — a traditional baby carrier used by indigenous North Americans.
Northwest tribal leaders in the area say they find it very disturbing for remains to be studied in any way.
The ongoing issue with the cracked Wanapum Dam in central Washington is now creating a problem for migrating salmon.
The drawdown of water between the Wanapum and the Rock Island dams to relieve pressure on the crack means the water levels are down about 25 feet at the base of both dams.
That leaves fish ladders high and dry.
Now, government fish scientists and engineers are trying to figure out just how to get adult salmon by both hulking concrete structures. At Wanapum, engineers plan to pump water into the fish ladder and create a sort of waterslide for salmon.
Russell Langshaw, a fisheries scientist with Grant County utility district that owns and operates Wanapum, says record numbers of fish are headed that way, so they have to get it figured out by mid-April.
“We have a lot of fish coming back this year, and we agree it’s an absolute necessity that we have safe and effective passage at both Wanapum and Rock Island dams.”
Langshaw says the smaller, juvenile fish are expected to be fine. They’re going downstream, and can move through the spillways and turbines.
Langshaw also says juvenile bypass systems are still operational at the Wanapum and the downstream Priest Rapids dam to help the small fish get downriver.