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

Apr 4, 2014

Fresh displays of fringed bikinis are hitting department stores across the nation, a clear signal summer is on its way. But for one resort community in central Washington this summer could be a bust. A crack in the Wanapum Dam has forced operators to draw down the Columbia River more than 25 feet. That’s left boat docks hundreds of feet from the water.

Eugene and Karen Penix live in the Sunland vacation community near Vantage, Wash. on the Columbia River above the cracked Wanapum Dam. Boat launches and docks in the community have been left high and dry from the drawdown of water behind the damaged dam.
Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network

We’re just several miles upstream from Vantage, Wash., at a place called Sunland Estates. Eugene Penix is on his second-story deck. He has a nearly 200-degree view of the Columbia River. Or lack of it.

“When I first walked out on this deck and looked at the docks, and those are 4-foot by 100-feet docks, and they are on the ground essentially. And that was pretty devastating, pretty shocking,” says Penix. 

Penix lives in this home year-round. There’re another 500 or so houses in this close community, and Penix knows just about everyone. It’s a place where thousands of well-heeled west-siders 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 ducks in a way. I mean they are just on the ground. One is sort of hung up on the pilings so it even looks worse. Just kind of hanging there,” says Penix. 

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,” says Curran. 

Curran’s 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 that come to the campground, are looking for the use of the river,” says Curran. 

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. Whether that will be done in time for people to recreate this year at those sites, that’s all to be seen when we have a better understanding of when the dam will be repaired,” says Bernd. 

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

Back at Sunland, Eugene 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.

Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network