Spring is drawdown season on Lake Roosevelt. As the winter snows begin to melt, by some complex interaction of decisions by officials at various agencies, the water flows increase through Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam and the surface level of the over one-hundred-mile-long reservoir begins to fall. As this happens, the sandy and rocky shoreline along this popular recreational lake begins to grow. Between the dark blue waters and the deep green Ponderosa Pine forests that surround it emerges a bright whitish-tan oasis that wiggles its way around and through the lake’s many inlets and the region’s precipitous hills. This is always an odd sight for those of us who live around Lake Roosevelt, still known by many around here as “The River.” This year the sight was particularly impressive, as the lake level dropped by more than usual, some seventy five feet below the normal fill level.
For those who haven’t seen it, a seventy-five foot drawdown may not seem like much in a one hundred mile long lake. Engineers say that one hundred and thirty two thousand acre-feet of water is missing, which helps illuminate the scope of the project. But to truly appreciate the amount of water that was not held back by the dam this spring and, by extension, the amount of water that is held back annually or even daily, nothing beats a little walk on these expanded beaches in the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.
This stretch of the Columbia River used to be the focal point of a tribal way of life that relied on the abundant salmon that migrated hundreds of miles upstream to places like Kettle Falls, where they were often caught by the native people who fished there. Now the lake is the focal point of another kind of culture: as the spring drawdown reverses and the beaches revert to thin bands of sand dotted with boat launches, campgrounds, and swim platforms, the annual migration of tourists driving big recreational vehicles pulling even bigger boats to their summer playground begins. Before these summer migrants arrive, locals like me can take a walk on these deserted and expanded beaches, and get a sense of what the area looked like seventy years ago before the water was detained.
I took such a walk a few weeks ago. I strolled past a marooned swim platform, and, a few yards further out, a string of chained-together logs that will soon float in formation to outline a designated swimming area. But that was just the start, for the shoreline lies several hundred yards further out the gently sloping sand and dried mud bank that once contained orchards, roads, towns, and lots more Ponderosa Pines. Going out further I found many stumps from the clearing of the flood area seventy years ago, and the remnants of an old road. Entire towns used to be out here, and people and many other creatures called this slope home.
Then I turned around and looked toward the shore. I saw the swim platform lying on the dry ground just a few yards away from the beach proper, and from the trees and picnic tables and parking area that are all in immediate proximity to each other. I walked back toward the summer playground, and tipped my head back and gazed up at the imaginary water line that extends horizontally from the summer shore to a place that is about as high over my head as is the roof of a six-story building. For a moment I saw the water above me and all around me as I stood on the bottom of this artificial lake. I imagined all those seemingly massive boats floating up there, and, closer to shore, tourists by the RV load bobbing around in that tiny corner of water delineated by the chained-together logs, and I realized how small these things are compared to the one hundred and thirty thousand acre-feet of water that in a few weeks will be above my head. Humans can do big things – build big dams and make even bigger lakes on which to put our big boats. It’s truly impressive.
This year’s drawdown was bigger than most because of worries about the nearby Odessa aquifer that has been declining in recent years. And a new study by researchers at the USGS and the University of Washington reports that tree-ring studies show that mountain snowpacks have been dropping to levels not seen in almost a thousand years. If these declines – which are attributed at least in part to global warming – continue, then water shortages will continue to grow, and, most likely, so will the extent of the spring drawdowns. As reported in the Seattle Times, the findings “highlight a fundamental flaw in how the U.S. views Western rivers… Assumptions about how to allocate water have largely been based on early 20th century hydrology and flow patterns that may not be sustainable.”