Parched summer could leave houseboats high and dry

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Local lawyer/historian Howard Droker’s well-researched 2003 history of the Emerald City’s floating home community was called Seattle’s Unsinkable Houseboats. Well, the houseboats themselves may not be sinking, but the lack of snowpack last winter and the dry and hot spring/summer may send some of them aground nonetheless.

The water level in the Lake Union/Lake Washington basin has dropped much sooner than normal and some houseboats are beginning to hit bottom in parts of Lake Union and Portage Bay. Currently at 20 feet as measured at the Ballard Locks, the lakes are at levels not usually reached until December.

“We’re predicting another drop of a foot or so to 19 feet,” said Ken Brettmann, the senior water manager who oversees reservoir regulation at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Western Washington projects, including the Ballard Locks (officially the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks). He spoke at a meeting earlier this week sponsored by the Floating Homes Association. More than 100 anxious houseboat owners attended. Earlier in August the corps in a press release said the level could drop to 18.5 feet. The record low lake level, reached in 1958, is 18.35 feet.

The prospect has houseboat owners -- I’m one of them -- worried about anything from minor damage to an uninhabitable house. We've never faced a situation this bad with the prospect of it getting even worse.

A “perfect storm” of events has created the perilous situation this year, Brettmann said. Normally the Lake Union/Lake Washington basin operates in a fairly narrow band that is controlled through the locks, rising to 22 feet in the summer and falling to 20 feet in the winter. The basin fills in the spring. There is usually enough snowmelt and rain to keep things steady through May. Then the level slowly drops from June through September due to boats passing through the locks, fish ladder operations, and evaporation. Rains return in October and enough water enters the system to keep things steady. The level of the basin falls to 20 feet in December so there is capacity for winter storms.

This year has been different. Snowpack was at near record lows last winter, robbing the region of the “water bank” that usually supplies us with ample water. Then spring rains were much lower than usual. And now the warmest weather in history means more water is evaporating from the lakes than usual.

Now, with lake levels where they would normally be in December and the prospect of even lower levels to come, houseboat owners are beginning to worry. At the Floating Homes Association meeting several houseboat owners said their floats were already touching the lake bottom. Concern was rising about what would happen as the lake continued to drop.

Most traditional houseboats float on a raft that is a combination of logs and other support – mostly in the past decade air-filled plastic barrels. Some more modern homes are built on concrete decks filled with flotation. Near the shore, both types depend on high enough water levels to float.

Some floating home docks themselves are floating, with the homes and dock rising and falling with the lake level. Others are fixed, with the homes tied to the dock and pilings with a series of “bumper” logs and chains. Each system presents its own problems.

Lines for water, electricity, sewer, phones, cable and (in some cases) gas are designed for the 22-to-20 foot range. Houseboat owners close to shore are at most risk with the lower lake levels, but all houseboats need to deal with whether the lines connecting to utilities are long enough.

One houseboat owner said she had her power lines extended for $805. That points to one of the issues facing the floating homes community -- how much all this could cost them.

Ed Waddington, who lives on a houseboat on the east side of Lake Union, outlined a number of questions that houseboat owners face. One solution for a houseboat near the shore might be to use inflatable “bladders” to help stabilize the house. But one such device Waddington found online from Australia would cost about $5,000, and shoring up a house could require several.

“Water management is about balance,” said Brettmann. The Corps can only control the outflow, not the inflow of water. To that end, it has instituted a number of water-saving measures at the locks such as packing as many boats as possible into each lock and limiting as much as possible the use of the large lock, which uses 10 times the volume of water as the small lock.

Several houseboat owners asked whether the Corps could restrict or regulate use of the locks, scheduling lock openings only at specific times, for example, or using the locks only at high tide to reduce the volume of water needed. Corps officials at the meeting promised to check on the questions. However, they said they were probably legally restricted from many changes in the locks usage. The Corps is mandated to serve commercial interests, endangered fish runs, and recreational boating.

Corps officials noted that some commercial users have been cutting back on their use of the locks and also coordinating with another commercial user to move through the locks at the same time.

Weather is still the key. In mid-August, when the surrounding region received about an inch of rain, the level of the Lake Union/Lake Washington basin increased only about 1.2 inches, rain and runoff both contributing to the increase.

Most residents of Seattle’s houseboat community are long-timers. They may wonder if these dire predictions, worrisome situations, and elaborate preparations only mean we will set another record in September -- wettest ever.

Correction: This story originally appeared with this photo. The Floating Homes Association informed us that the shot is not of floating homes, but "live-aboards."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy writes on business and economic issues for Crosscut. He was a business editor and columnist for a number of years at The Seattle Times.