by Pia K. Hansen

Every summer, most of the people in the Inland Northwest go "to the lake" at least once. As the temperatures rise, lake and riverside cabins fill up with city-dreary tourists looking for a little sun and some fun on the water.

This year, however, if you want to go sailing, rafting or water skiing, there is one thing to take into consideration: We're in the middle of an official drought, and it doesn't look like it's going to end soon.

"It's almost unprecedented -- it's just very unusual. Last year was not too bad, except the snow melted real early, but this year is going to be really dry," says Phil Morrisey, hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Services in Idaho. The culprit? Low snowpack throughout Washington and Idaho.

"In Idaho, it's near the lowest on record, and our records go back 60 years," says Morrisey. "This April's snowpack actually was the lowest on record. All we know is from this point on, the stream flow is going to be real low."

Stream flow numbers released by Washington's Department of Ecology in early April cautioned against too much excitement over the April showers that finally hit the state after a dry winter. The snowpack in May is only at 50-65 percent of normal, and flow in the Columbia River is already down as well.

Still, to the joy of boaters and other water sports enthusiasts, area lakes are filling up -- slowly. Lake Coeur d'Alene is currently at 88 percent of its summer level, but Priest Lake is only at 58 percent. And Lake Pend Oreille is at just 51 percent at this time.

"Lake Coeur d'Alene is expected to refill to summer level, but it may drop below that level sooner than usual," says Morissey, "it may start dropping in July."

Aside from the obvious consequences for fisheries and agriculture, a summer-long drought is also going to hurt the tourism industry that many North Idaho businesses depend on.

In Sandpoint, for instance, not all boat docks are built to handle low water levels, and many resorts and restaurants are set up to be at the waterfront -- not a hundred yards from a low lake. But as the peak tourism season grows nearer, some cruise and whitewater rafting businesses anxiously await the arrival of summer.

"So far, we are proceeding as usual with the public cruises, and we are doing private cruises out of Hope, which is a deep water marina," says Linda Mitchell, co-owner of Lake Pend Oreille Cruises. "In the summer, we move the boat into Sandpoint, but I'm concerned we won't be able to do so if the water levels are too low. The question for us, then, becomes, will people drive an extra 15 miles to Hope to go on a cruise?" Mitchell and her husband Curtis Pearson have operated the cruise business since 1995, and she says she's optimistic about the summer.

Since Lake Pend Oreille is managed by dams run by the Army Corps of Engineers, some things can be done to keep the water level up, and area residents are letting the Idaho legislature know what they think.

"People are really getting into this up here," Mitchell says. "There's been a letter writing campaign to the legislature, and people are very proactive about the water issue. There was a rumor that the lake won't fill up, but I have personally talked to the people at the Albeni Dam, and they say they will fill it. But the question is how long we will get to keep our water."

Water may be drawn early at the request of salmon managers -- who need the water to ease the salmon's migration over and around dams in Washington -- or for power-producing turbines that are needed to help the West's electricity shortages.

Though she worries about the drought, Mitchell is convinced the people of Sandpoint will prevail over salmon and power concerns.

"Personally, I definitely think tourism is going to be affected if the water gets too low," says Mitchell.

Still, many water-based businesses in the area are reluctant to speculate on the summer's water levels, saying that they don't want it to sound like this is a major disaster. Others are thinking fast to adjust their business plans to low water levels.

"It's not the first time we've seen low water levels, and we've been in business for 22 years," says Peter Grubb, founder and president of River Odysseys West in Coeur d'Alene. "As far as our rafting tours go on the bigger rivers, low water is not a big deal. The tours we do down into Hell's Canyon on the Snake will be fine, for instance. But we'll see some impact on the shorter trips on the Lochsa. We may have to close down a little earlier there, maybe around July 4th."

Actually, for the rafting outfits like Grubb's, high water levels can be a much bigger concern, because the rivers then become too dangerous to navigate.

"A lot of the rivers that we run on are not dam controlled, so it's just what nature is doing," says Grubb. "My biggest concern is what's going to happen to salmon. I mean, the extinction of a species because we have to make power just doesn't make any sense to me."

Grubb doesn't have any plans to change his operations too much because of the drought.

"So far, there is still plenty of water, and if it gets real low, we can run smaller rafts or carry less people on the rafts. We'll deal with it," he says. A popular choice on low water trips are inflatable one- or two-person kayaks -- what Grubb calls Duckies.

"They are so neat. We do a follow-the-leader kind of thing down the river, and even if the waves are small, they seem so much bigger when you sit right there in them," says Grubb. "They are just a hoot. My personal belief is people can have a great time on the river with a good attitude, regardless of how much water there is. Rafting is just always fun."

River Odysseys West in Coeur d'Alene

can be reached at (208) 765-0841.

Lake Pend Oreille Cruises can be

reached at (208) 255-LAKE.

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