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In eastern Washington State, a massive hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River is cracked. Engineers have lowered the water upstream to relieve pressure on the structure. But the low water behind Wanapum Dam has alarmed nearby farmers. Some irrigation pipes are no longer reaching the river and the weather is about to heat up. The Northwest News Network's Anna King reports.
ANNA KING, BYLINE: Frosty Hansen is 74 but he drives his Kawasaki like he's 15 and has nothing to lose.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)
KING: Hansen tends 900-acres of cherry orchards and beef cattle. His Wenatchee-area ground spans from high rocky bluffs, right down to the Columbia River shore. That's where he pumps out irrigation water for his valuable trees. Where are we going?
FROSTY HANSEN: Down to the Columbia River where my intake is.
KING: He wants to show me why possibly thousands of acres of Washington's fruit trees are in trouble - including his close neighbors.
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KING: Hansen takes me down a 400-foot cliff face in just two tight switchbacks. Frosty, I've got to admit I am a little bit scared. We're on the edge of a cliff.
KING: Down by the river, it's clear from the left over muck where the water used to be. That's before the dam cracked, and the water had to be lowered about 25 feet. Hansen has two big pumps that still reach the water. But his neighbors - their pipes stop short. Hansen's plan is to pump irrigation water for them until Wanapum Dam is fixed.
HANSEN: I am just thankful that I've got the facilities to help everybody. I mean, my neighbors, they've helped me out when I had a ferret house burned down and my hog barn burnt down. They all came and helped me so it's my turn to help them now.
KING: Some farmers must lay hundreds of feet of new pipe to reach water again. They have to get state and federal permits, and time is running out.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (singing in Spanish)
KING: Workers are already in the orchards. They blare music from car radios while they prune. Farmers already need large amounts of water to spray chemicals and protect delicate blossoms from frost. And soon, hot, dry weather will mean they'll need even more water for irrigation.
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KING: Charlotte Gonzales helps run the Texaco right off Interstate 90 in a town called Vantage. This highway and Columbia River intersection is usually a popular break spot for travelers and tourists looking to cool off in the river. So far, the low water has meant increased business from gawkers who haven't seen such low water levels since the 1960s. Gonzales is seeing about 40 percent more sales than typical for this time of year. But come summer...
CHARLOTTE GONZALES: No boating access whatsoever to the Wanapum reservoir at all. And it will affect the people who come down to play in the water just from the shoreline, because they won't be able to do that either.
KING: I'm just downriver from Vantage, on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Columbia River near the Wanapum Dam. From this viewpoint, the scope of the problem snaps into focus. The ailing dam's drawdown has exposed miles of sandy beaches and rocky shoals. The low water has even reveled old gravesites. A small band of Native Americans and government employees are working overtime to protect those.
Teams of engineers say they are doing all they can at the Wanapum Dam. They're drilling concrete core samples to find out how bad the crack is. But it could take months to fix. And farmers, tourist spots and Northwest tribes are worried they can't last that long with low, low water. For NPR News, I'm Anna King outside of Vantage, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.