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500,000 cfs in Columbia River is good for fun, not business

June 11, 2011

The Columbia River has been flowing at about 500,000 cfs, give or take, for the last few weeks, leaving the stretch between The Dalles and Bonneville dams several feet deeper and much swifter than its average annual peak levels. Historical data shows the average high flow for The Dalles Dam at about 400,000 cfs, which generally occurs in early June, before fairly quickly tapering down to an average low of about 200,000 cfs by September.

This year's river level is the highest recorded in 15 years; since 1996 when flooding threatened to deluge much of downtown Portland. According to forecasts, over the next couple months the river will peak, stay high longer, and take more time to return to normal levels.

"In the short term, the water level in your area (Bonneville Pool) is going to stay fairly steady -- what you see now -- for at least the next 10 days," said Chuck Orwig, hydrologist for NOAA's Northwest River Forecast Center. "Beyond that, it will depend on what Mother Nature decides to do; but the river will be above-average in flow and level probably through the whole summer."

For some, the news of extended high water is ice cream on a hot day; lots of water and strong currents running west and strong winds blowing east have brought some of the biggest and best swell on the river since the invention of both windsurfing and kiteboarding. A few straight months of that will mean an epic season on the wate; at least, for those who can handle the more challenging conditions.

For others, wind and water conditions are less about fun and more about dollars and cents. High water, paired with a May that set rainfall records and felt more like March, has meant, for many businesses, a slow transition into their busiest time of the year.

"People were late getting out on the water this year," said Dave Nunn, owner of Windance Board Shop. "The late winter was part of it; in March everyone was still up on the mountain skiing. We had a pretty good April and May with local customers, but the weather and water situation has clearly not been a positive influence on business."

For Nunn, the slow spring is a reminder of why shopping locally is so important.

"We've got to support the local community and local businesses," he said. "I find it somewhat appalling when people buy stuff online if they can get the same price for it locally. If we don't support the local economy, we will wonder why there's no selection in town."

Like Windance, recreation-based businesses can rely on creative marketing, return local customers, foot traffic and Internet sales to help keep a steady revenue during slow months. But for businesses like Hood River's windsurfing and kiteboarding schools, conditions with the weather and water have a much more dominant impact on an already capricious business model.

"The weather has had more of an effect on business than the high water this year," said Jim Bison, owner and instructor for New Wind Kiteboarding. "We have calls coming in for lessons, but at this point we have had to tell people to wait. We can do jetski lessons, and we have a waiting list of customers; the weather just hasn't been cooperating."

For windsurfing schools, high water isn't much of an issue because they generally teach from the Hook, which is deeper than normal but protected from any strong currents. Still, though, the weather has meant a slow start to the season.

"Things are significantly slower this year," said Jak Wilberscherd, owner of Hood River Waterplay, which offers both windsurfing and kiteboarding lessons. "A lot of it is the weather, and I think some of it has to do with the news stations in Portland overdramatizing the conditions. If people think its flooding out here in the Gorge, they're going to be wary of coming out."

Wilberscherd said he typically has six to 10 part-time employees during the summer, but that currently he has only been able to give them limited training hours until the season picks up.

"If Mother Nature cooperates we'll be out there pretty soon," he said. "It's like farming; if we don't get the right weather, our crops won't come to fruition. In this business, we're all subject to the wind gods."

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