Spring is drawdown season on Lake Roosevelt. As the winter snows begin to melt the water flows increase through Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam and the surface level of the over one-hundred-mile-long reservoir falls, and the sandy and rocky shoreline along the lake begins to grow. This is an odd sight for those of us who live around Lake Roosevelt. This year the sight was particularly impressive, as the lake level dropped some seventy five feet below the normal fill level.
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 illuminates the scope of the project. But to truly appreciate the amount of water that was not held back by the dam this spring, nothing beats a little walk on these expanded beaches in the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.
I took such a walk a few weeks ago. I strolled past a marooned swim platform, and, a few yards beyond, a string of chained-together logs that in a few weeks will float in formation to outline a swimming area. That was just the start, for the shoreline lies several hundred yards further out the gently sloping bank that once contained orchards, roads, towns, and lots of 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.
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. Walking back toward the summer playground, I tipped my head 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 the seemingly massive boats that in a few weeks will be floating up there, and, closer to shore, swimmers 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 will soon be above my head. Humans can do big things – build big dams and make even bigger lakes on which to put our big boats. Yes, we can do big things, but also often make very big mistakes.