Leavenworth, Wash.—Excavator Marooned in the Enchantments

Aging dams deep in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness sparked a crisis that is continuing to unfold. Last year, officials from the Icicle and Peshastin Irrigation Districts discovered that the crumbling Eightmile Dam could be overwhelmed with spring runoff. Many wilderness dams are aging, and due to climate change, more precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow, which erodes the snowpack and accelerates spring runoff. To make matters worse, a 2017 forest fire (Jack Creek wildfire) torched the terrain around Eightmile Lake, making the ground less stable and less erosion resistant.

Fast forward a few months, dam managers spent nearly six-figures to helicopter an excavator to the lake in order to make necessary repairs to the dam, and avoid disaster. According to Evan Bush of the Seattle Times, “Now the excavator, marooned amid a dispute over how to get it out, is a symbol itself of the water problems deep in Pacific Northwest wilderness.”

The Enchantments are among the most popular hiking areas in the Northwest, but seven little-known dams were built long before Congress designated it a wilderness area. Many of these dams are vital tools for managing water needs for Leavenworth, including drinking water, agriculture, and the fish hatchery. Few people even recall the dam was higher before it was damaged in a 1990 flood. At this point, nobody has suitable answers for removing the excavator because it is forbidden from driving through the wilderness, even if the terrain allowed it, and agencies don’t have an extra $100,000 to remove it by helicopter. For now, the excavator just sits by the lake, wrapped in black plastic. //

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