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

This summer could be a bust for a resort community in central Washington after a crack in the Wanapum Dam forced operators to draw down the Columbia River more than 25 feet.

It’s left boat docks hundreds of feet from the water.

A few miles upstream from Vantage, Wash., lies Sunland Estates. From his second-story deck, Eugene Penix 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," he says. "Pretty shocking.”

Penix lives in this home year-round. There are around another 500 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," he says. "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.”

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, a real-estate broker at the Crescent Bar resort just upriver from Sunland, agrees. She says, “It’s the unknown.”

Curran says some campsite and vacation home reservations have already being cancelled.

“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.”

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," says Bernd. "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.”

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

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.

He's a glass half-full kind of guy.

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.