Tourism Recedes With Water Levels


Ed Wimberly looks out the window of his marina, at docks lying on gravel and a 50-foot houseboat sitting on a flatbed truck.

The Northwest drought has the Columbia River running far lower than normal, and businesses that cater to tourists are hurting. But Wimberly is more worried about bad publicity than dry weather.

The Columbia is finally rising--and water levels are approaching normal--but he's not sure that tourists are getting the message.

"We got an awful lot of bad publicity in the past two months," said Wimberly, who rents 17 huge houseboats in the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.

The Columbia provides more than water as it meanders through Eastern Washington and along the Washington-Oregon border. In addition to nourishing crops and people, the Columbia supports an extensive tourism industry.

That includes marinas, motels, restaurants, sporting goods stores, outfitters and seasonal workers.

In many of the depressed mining and timber towns of northeastern Washington, a strong summer season helps people survive the economic slowdowns in winter.

But the worst drought since 1977 is making things tough for the tourist business.

At a B&B; called My Parents' Estate, the water supply is so low that owner Beverly Parent said she will probably not open for business this summer. The inn's cistern is not filling fast enough to provide water for showers, dishwashing and other needs, she said.

"We normally have overflowing water in the cistern," Parent said. "We'll be shut down all summer unless we get a lot of rain."

The Crescent Oaks RV Park in Wilbur was also hurting for business, even during the annual Wild Bill Goose Days festival in the small town south of the river.

"Normally this time of year we would be really busy," said co-manager David Rohrer.

While tourist businesses may suffer, the reality is that Grand Coulee Dam was built to provide irrigation water, control flooding and generate electricity. Recreational use of the reservoir, which started filling in 1941, is a byproduct.

The Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area starts at Grand Coulee Dam and runs for 130 miles to near the Canadian border. Last year, 1.4 million people visited the area, the National Park Service reported.

This year, visitor numbers are already way down because of a cold winter and because water levels are too low to use most boat launches.

Through the end of April, only 144,000 people had visited Lake Roosevelt, compared with 198,000 for the same period last year. The number of visitors is the lowest in the past nine years.

Lynne Brougher, spokeswoman for the Lake Roosevelt NRA, said the level of the lake is rising more than 1 foot per day, thanks to runoff from the mountains. She is urging people to make their normal summer plans for camping, boating and fishing.

Lake Roosevelt was expected to be at elevation 1,245 by Memorial Day weekend, on the low side of normal for this time of year, the National Park Service said.

Low water is a real downer at Lake Roosevelt because many boat launches and docks become unusable, and there is increased danger of boats striking rocks.

But slightly lower water levels are not all bad. There will be many more miles of sandy beaches exposed along the shoreline than usual, Brougher said.

"It's kind of the best of both worlds this year," she said.

Wimberly, who runs Lake Roosevelt Resort & Marina, is counting on people realizing that water recreation could be excellent this summer.

His 62-foot houseboats, which feature a hot tub on top and sleep 13 people, rent for $4,695 a week. The 54-footers rent for $3,295 a week. Even a small reduction in bookings is very costly, he said.

So far, he has about 200 trips booked on the houseboats, but business is still down about $50,000 from last year.

"I talked to one lady who was convinced there will be stagnant water with obstacles everywhere," Wimberly said. In reality, "we'll be within 10 feet of full by the first of July."

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