Washington Fruit Farmers Scramble To Irrigate From Lowered Columbia River

Mar 21, 2014

And now an update on the cracked Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington.  Dam engineers are continuing to keep the pool behind the ailing structure drawn down to relieve pressure.  So far they don’t know how bad the crack in the dam’s spillway is, but they are still investigating.

Frosty Hansen, 74, of near Wenatchee, says he’s going to help his neighbors irrigate their fruit trees, since many of their pipes don’t reach the Columbia River. The Wanapum pool has been lowered about 25 feet to relieve pressure on the cracked dam.
Credit Anna King

What we do know is the dam’s drawdown is having very real consequences for the region’s farmers, tourism hubs and Northwest tribes.  Correspondent Anna King reports.

Frosty Hansen is 74 but he drives his Kawasaki farm vehicle around his spread like he’s 15 and has nothing to lose.

Hansen tends 900 acres of cherry orchards and beef cattle.  His Wenatchee-area ground spans from high rocky bluffs, right down to the Columbia River shore.  That’s where he pumps out irrigation water for his valuable trees.

Anna King: “Where are we going?”

Frosty Hansen: “Down to the Columbia River where my intake is.”

He wants to show me why possibly thousands of acres of Washington’s fruit trees are in trouble.  Hansen takes me down a 400-foot cliff face in just two tight switchbacks.

Anna King: “Frosty, I’ve got to admit I am a little bit scared we’re on the edge of cliff.”

Frosty Hansen: “You’re scared?”

Down by the river, it’s clear from the leftover muck where the water used to be.  That’s before the dam cracked and the water had to be lowered about 25 feet.  Hansen has two big pumps that still reach the water. But his neighbors – their pipes stop short.  Hansen’s plan is to pump irrigation water for them until Wanapum 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.  They blare music from car radios while they prune.  Farmers already need large amounts of water to spray chemicals and protect delicate blossoms from frost.  And soon, hot, dry weather will mean they’ll need even more water for irrigation.

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 …

“…No boating access whatsoever to the Wanapum reservoir at all," said Gonzales.  "It will affect the people who come down to play on the shoreline, they won’t be able to do that either.”

I’m just downriver from Vantage, on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Columbia River near the Wanapum Dam. From this viewpoint, 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 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.

Slideshow: http://www.flickr.com/photos/67436499@N06/sets/72157642613548275/show/
Set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/67436499@N06/sets/72157642613548275/

Copyright 2014 Northwest News