Tours, visitor center hours and laser light show offerings might be curtailed because of budget cuts, officials confirmed this week, but they’re still hoping for a reprieve from the national budget cutback known as “sequestration.”
Although tours at Grand Coulee Dam resumed Monday after a normal winter stoppage, a hiring freeze across the Department of Interior has made it impossible to hire the extra help needed to keep operations open all week through the normal tourism season, explained Lynne Brougher, public affairs officer with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Grand Coulee office.
Brougher’s comments came in response to a question from local motel owner Michael Bradley of the Columbia River Inn during a chamber of commerce luncheon Thursday.
Brougher said the Grand Coulee Dam project has asked for an exemption from Interior, but the department is likely fielding thousands of such requests and had not yet responded.
Tours will be offered at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. through Memorial Day, she said. But without the ability to hire more workers for the Visitor Center and tours, operations would have to be cut back.
She said the plan, if no exemption comes, is to close the Visitor Center on Monday and Tuesday, then open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday. No laser show would grace the face of the dam on those days either, despite the first new show since 1989 set to debut in late July at a cost of $1.6 million.
“We’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” Brougher said.
“From our perspective as a motel industry, this will really hurt,” Bradley said. “We have people coming from all over the world.”
Bradley said the cutbacks would have lasting impact as people who have made plans travel to find disappointment in the fact that a supposedly stable schedule has changed.
Bradley, whose motel is situated across the street from the visitor center, suggested local funds could help the bureau hire employees by asking the local towns to tap their reserves of more than $400,000 in hotel/motel tax funds.
The budget turmoil comes from a condition called “sequestration” imposed by Congress and signed by the President in 2011 in a move designed to make such blind, across-the-board cuts so painful that they would never be politically feasible, forcing opposing parties in the nation’s fiscal policy debates to compromise. That didn’t work, and now federal government departments from Interior to Defense are forced into large cuts.
Roy Hamilton, of Shaw’s Fruit and Produce, noted that in a recent conference call with constituents, Congressman Richard “Doc” Hastings, R-4th District, who represents most of this area and central Washington, “made the statement that Grand Coulee Dam was not going to be affected.”
“It’s time for some phone calls,” Hamilton added.
Ivan Snavely, head tour guide at the visitor center, said this week that the current hiring freeze leaves his operation with only six tour guides. They would work the 14-hour days remaining in the week after Wednesdays and operate the laser show.
Snavely said tours opened Monday, April 1, on time, and that there were a dozen or so tourists ready to take the first tour of the year.
Snavely said that a number of college students who provide tour services in the summer will be in limbo at least until the “sequester” problem works its way through the agency.