Getting to a spot for shore fishing along Lake Roosevelt this week is much like hiking across the Sahara Desert. Vast expanses of sand, mud and rocks are being exposed by a deep reservoir drawdown to make room for runoff from snow that’s still hanging tight in the mountains.
“I’ll have to shorten my cast to keep from snagging brush on the other side,” joked Dave Ross as he hiked down to fish at Hansen Harbor, where the boat ramp and dock have been high and dry for weeks above the still falling water level.
While most of the region’s rivers and lakes are at least brimful, the water level of the reservoir that stretches 130 miles behind Grand Coulee Dam has been dropping at the rate of nearly a foot a day all month. The elevation today should be around 1,225 feet above sea level.
By the end of the month, the elevation is forecast to be 1,220 feet or lower, said Lynne Brougher of the Bureau of Reclamation at Grand Coulee Dam.
At that point, none of the 22 boat launches along the reservoir will reach all the way to the water as hydrologists re-evaluate whether further drawdown is required.
The lowest-extending boat ramp on the reservoir is Spring Canyon’s, which reaches to 1,222 feet.
The lowest Roosevelt can be drawn down and still support power generation at Grand Coulee is 1,208 feet.
Last year, the reservoir’s lowest level was 1,259 feet.
A lighter snowpack came off more evenly in 2009 and 2010, contributing to the excellent trout fishing success anglers have enjoyed through this winter for older rainbow trout.
“I’m afraid the way this year’s drawdown and runoff is shaping up, a lot of the lake’s bigger fish are going downstream over Grand Coulee and out of the system,” said John Whalen, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional fisheries manager.
The trout and kokanee being raised in Roosevelt net pens are generally released in July, after the lake level has been brought back up to the summer-fall levels of 1,280-1,290 feet. “That helps prevent the young fish from going out of the system,” he said.
As bad as a drawdown below 1,220 sounds to many anglers and boaters, it’s a good time for anglers to scout the shoreline for rocky structure that will hold walleye and bass when water levels go up.
The reservoir has been drawn down much further.
The lowest in recent decades occurred in 1969 when work at Grand Coulee Dam’s third powerhouse required a drawdown to 1,159, giving the public a rare view of Kettle Falls in the Columbia River upstream.
The lowest operating level of 1,208 feet has occurred most recently in 1997 and 1991. Those years, Hayes Island, an historic Native American gathering site, became visible.
But at 1,208, nearby Kettle Falls creates only a ripple in the current of the Columbia River.
People gathered at these sites for hundreds of years to spear and trap chinook salmon that had traveled 710 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
The last salmon came to the falls in 1940, the year before Grand Coulee Dam forever blocked their path.
• The lowest elevations Lake Roosevelt has reached in the past decade are as follows:
1,217 feet in 2001; 1,240 in 2002; 1,265 in 2003; 1,258 in 2004; 1,253 in 2005; 1,231 in 2006; 1,248 in 2007; 1,228 in 2008; 1,257 in 2009, and 1,259 in 2010.