Columbia River at Leslie Grove Park

Clarification from Christine Pratt has been added since publication.

Wear shoes that can handle both rocks and mud, Elizabeth Groendyke, advised anyone considering taking advantage of the low flow in the Columbia River to walk along the shoreline. Last year she walked from the Snyder boat landing to Ferry Street along the river’s edge, Groendyke told the Observer in a riverside interview at Richland’s Leslie Grove Park.

Groendyke said that she noticed interesting, orange-colored rock formations that she couldn’t see from the paved trail in the park.

“It seems to be an annual event,” Goendyke said of the low water level that once was purely the result of weather conditions but now is also influenced by the dams.

In late winter and very early spring, water flow in the river is typically low, according to Christine Pratt spokeswoman for the Grant Public Utility District (PUD) which owns the dam. The federal government’s license to operate the Priest Rapids Dam, which is about 47 miles northwest of Richland, requires that the water level in the reservoir behind the dam stay within 481.5 and 488 feet above sea level, Pratt wrote in an email to the Observer.

Early spring is usually a time of lower demand for electricity, so the dam’s operators take advantage of that to fill the reservoir, Pratt said. A link provided by Pratt indicates that the reservoir is currently at 482.8 feet above sea level.

“Reservoir filling and draining happens constantly, around the clock, all year, depending on the demand for electricity from hour to hour and the amount of natural flow in the river,” Pratt said.

“We close the gates to the turbine/generators to back up the flowing river behind the dam for storage until we again need the flow to generate,” Pratt explained.

Everyone the Observer interviewed in Leslie Grove Park noticed the latest fluctuation in the river’s water level, but comments about it varied.

“It’s part of life,” lifelong Richland resident Rich Mayer said of the water level in the river.

Lexi Painter had noticed the river was lower while she supervised her three-year old at the Leslie Grove playground, but she said she had no idea why.

In the next few months, Pratt noted, the Grant PUD has an obligation to keep enough water flowing from the dam into the Hanford Reach, just north of Richland, to ensure that salmon eggs are submerged.

In May and June snow melt could mean that water is spilled over the dams to keep the reservoir level below the maximum allowed and the Tri-Cities could see higher water levels then.