Life’s no beach at Lake Roosevelt.
The most precious recreational real estate on the 150-mile long reservoir has been bare sand.
“We were here over the Fourth of July and had three huge beaches all to ourselves,” Meagan Riley of Seattle said last Saturday. “Now we barely have enough beach to put up a tent.”
Indeed, the three families in Riley’s party had their camp squeezed into a strip of sand bordered on the rear by a steep cliff and no more than two giant steps from the tent doors to the water.
“The campsite we had on the Fourth is under water,” Riley said.
“I’ve been coming here for years, and the water’s always different,” said David Godly of Spokane. “You come early in the season and the water’s down 35 feet and there’s all kinds of beaches, but you can’t hardly find a place to launch a boat.”
The lake behind Grand Coulee Dam was drawn down in April to the lowest level since 1980 to accommodate a near record spring runoff.
By Memorial Day weekend, the lake level had been allowed to rise enough to cover the ends of most of the lake’s 22 boat-launching ramps.
Water wasn’t the only thing that poured into the lake with the enormous runoff. Logs and wood debris continue to be hazards for boaters and water skiers in many areas, even though the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has hired tug boats to corral the hazards near the mouth of the Kettle River.
By the Fourth of July holiday, the lake was at ideal levels for recreation - high enough for boat launching, but low enough to expose the sandy beaches campers and day-users have come to expect from the sprawling Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.
But the “normal summer operating level” of the reservoir ranges between elevations of 1,280 and 1,290 feet, said Craig Sprankle, Bureau of Reclamation spokesman.
“A few feet of difference in the pool level can make a dramatic difference in the amount of exposed beach,” Sprankle said.
Two weeks ago, the level was up to 1,290. That leaves barely enough beach in many areas to plop a lawn chair and sip a beverage, if you don’t mind having your feet in the water at the same time.
Beginning this week, however, the lake level should begin a gradual downward trend toward the 1,280-foot level by the end of August, Sprankle said.
At around 1,285 feet, beaches big enough for volleyball games begin to emerge at Roosevelt.
“In May the lake can rise by three feet a day,” Sprankle said, noting that the changes mellow considerably in summer. “The level can fluctuate considerably during a day even in summer, although we try not to drop it more than 1-1/2 feet in 24 hours.”
With only 38 official campgrounds on the lake operated by the National Park Service and the Colville and Spokane Indian tribes, many park overnighters like to rough it on the beaches.
With no beaches, those campers have been forced more into the sage and bitterbrush along the lake, where they’ve found close encounters with the area’s abundant wildlife.
“We’ve been here 10 years in a row without seeing a rattlesnake, but we saw one today,” one camper said.
This reporter was camped on strip of beach so thin, we had to put the cooking area on the uplands above. Three rattlers showed up in the camp kitchen area in two days. One of them made it into one of the food boxes.
The kids all chose to sleep on the boats for the rest of the trip.
“Snakes are cool,” said Spokane teenagerJustin Hanks, “but I don’t really want to sleep with them.”
Godly’s group didn’t seem to be down about the skimpy nature of their camping beach. “We came here to be in the water, and we are,” he said.
“I like the fact that the lake is different every time I come. Half the fun of coming here is exploring to see what you can find for a campsite.”
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