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A Long, Dry Summer For River Resort Communities Behind Cracked Dam?

Anna King
Boat launches and docks in the community have been left high and dry from the drawdown of water behind the damaged dam.

For one resort community in central Washington, this summer could be a bust. A crack in the Wanapum Dam there has forced operators to draw down the Columbia River more than 25 feet, leaving boat docks hundreds of feet from the water.

Just several miles upstream from Vantage is a place called Sunland Estates. From his second-story deck, Eugene Penix has a nearly 200-degree view of the Columbia River — or lack thereof.

“When I first walked out on this deck and looked at the docks … that was pretty devastating, pretty shocking,” he said.

Penix lives in this home year-round. There’re another 500 or so houses in this close-knit community and Penix knows just about everyone. It’s a place where thousands of well-heeled westsiders come to bathe in the eastern Washington heat. Think boats, loud radios and coolers full of icy Coronas. 

Summer is about to kick off. But now, this bay is an expanse of sun-cracked mud. Penix says the docks look a bit pathetic. 

“They kind of look, you know, like crippled docks, in a way. I mean they are just on the ground. One is sort of hung up on the pilings, and so it even looks worse. Just kind of hanging there,” he said.

Stinking dead clams litter the ground. Gusts of wind blow clouds of silt. The mud is like quicksand and residents have been warned to stay clear.

One woman had to be rescued after sinking hip-deep in the muck. Penix worries sun-seekers might seek sun elsewhere. Patricia Curran agrees. 

“It’s the unknown,” said Curran, a real-estate broker at the Crescent Bar resort just upriver from Sunland. She says some campsite and vacation home reservations have already been canceled. 

“This is a huge boating area, and the Wanapum River is a gorgeous setting. And the people at Crescent Bar, especially the ones the come to the campground, are looking for the use of the river,” she said.

But the Grant County utility district says there might be a silver lining to the exposed river shore. The district owns and operates the dam, and Bob Bernd says the district had been planning to upgrade boat launches and docks. The low water just makes it easier — and cheaper. 

“Tentative estimates are that we will save upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars by not having to do work below the water level,” Bernd said. “Whether that will be done in time for people to recreate this year at those sites, that’s all to be seen when we, when we have a better understanding of when the dam will be repaired.”

Bernd says there’s no estimate as to when the dam will be repaired.

Back at Sunland, Penix says he’s prepared for a different kind of summer. He says if there isn’t water to play in, at least there still will be sun. He’s a glass-half-full kind of guy.

“Age has something to do with that as well. As we get older, we mellow out. You know, trying to keep that glimmer of hope, you know,” he said.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.