Water Levels Affect Inchelium-Gifford Ferry, Cutting Off Rural L - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Water Levels Affect Inchelium-Gifford Ferry, Cutting Off Rural Lifeline

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STEVENS COUNTY, Wash. - STEVENS COUNTY, Wash – People who live in the rural towns near Inchelium and Gifford describe the ferry that connects the two communities as a “lifeline.”  But every now and then, that lifeline is cut off when water levels are too low.

When that happens, schoolchildren are bussed the 70 mile detour up to the nearest bridge and over, tourists can’t easily reach marinas and boats, grocery deliveries are altered, fish raised to mitigate the loss of salmon are endangered, and patients have a hard time reaching the community health care clinic.

So why is the ferry sometimes forced to stop operations?  To say it’s a complicated issue may be an oversimplification; there are several state and federal agencies who have input on the water levels and ferry operations for various reasons, including the Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bonneville Power Administration and the Colville Tribe, for instance.

The water in Lake Roosevelt is generally regulated between elevations of 1290 and 1208 feet, depending on the needs of the Columbia River system.  However, the Inchelium-Gifford Ferry can only operate when the water is at least 1232 feet because of the ramp system and slope of the banks. 

At stake?  Not only the ferry, but also flood control, fish flow, power production, even barging and ship traffic in the lower Columbia.  A Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson told KHQ Lake Roosevelt is the largest storage reservoir on the Columbia River in the United States, affecting water levels at Grand Coulee Dam.  So to prevent flooding at Grand Coulee in a year where this is a lot of snowpack runoff, the water must be held back at Lake Roosevelt.

However, it is not low enough to stop ferry service every year – that all depends on the snowpack.  In early May, ferry service was stopped for a few days due to a combination of low water levels and a Coast Guard inspection on the ferry.  KHQ’s Kelsey Watts checked the numbers and found that prior to that, the last time ferry service was impacted by low water levels was for a week in April 2012.  Before that, it was down for 39 days in the spring of 2011, according to data provided by the Bureau of Reclamation.

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Indian Affairs said a study had to been done to explore the possibility of building a bridge in place of the ferry, but it was found to be too expensive.

As for extending the ferry ramps to allow for service in lower water, the spokesperson said the ramps on the Gifford side were recently renovated with stimulus funds, but extending them even more is problematic due to the slope of the ground and environmental impacts.

While there’s certainly no easy fix, it is clear that when the ferry service is shut off, there is a tremendous impact on the nearby communities as people are forced to make an hour and a half drive in place of a six-minute ferry ride.
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