Union Creek Campground will open this summer
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Union Creek Campground will open for Memorial Day weekend.
But the performance of Union Creek's spring-fed water system might force the U.S. Forest Service to close sections of Baker County's biggest developed forest campground this summer.
As of this morning, Forest Service officials intend to open Union Creek on Friday, May 27, with all the flush toilets flushing and faucets flowing, said Dick Haines, ranger at the Forest Service's Whitman Unit office in Baker City.
Union Creek, with 70 overnight campsites, some with electric, sewer and water connections for travel trailers and motor homes, is the biggest and fanciest forest campground in Baker County.
The campground sits on the north shore of Phillips Reservoir, just off Ore. Highway 7 about 17 miles southwest of Baker City.
Forest Service officials blame the five-year drought for the dilemma at Union Creek.
Last week the spring that supplies water to the campground produced less than the 7 gallons per minute that's needed to fill all the pipes, Haines said.
But by Wednesday the spring, fortified by heavy rain the past several days, was spewing out about 12 gallons per minute, he said.
Trouble is, Haines said, no one can predict how long the spring can sustain that volume.
"My hope is it will sustain itself for a long time," he said this morning. "But I wouldn't be surprised if (the water flow) inches down on us as we go along."
If that happens, then the Forest Service might need to close certain sections of the campground, Haines said.
"It's very hard to predict," he said.
The long-term water solution at Union Creek a well the Forest Service plans to drill is several months away, so for this summer's camping season that spring is the campground's sole supply.
Haines said Forest Service officials will strive to minimize effects on campers.
"Union Creek is a very large and significant campground," he said. "It's very special to Baker County."
Spring supply insufficient last week
Employees from Recreation Resource Management, the private company that has run Union Creek via a special-use permit since 2000, last week were readying the campground for its scheduled opening on Memorial Day weekend.
Mike Hall, the lands, recreation and minerals officer for the Whitman Unit, said workers tried to recharge the campground's water system, which they empty each fall to prevent pipe cracks during winter, but the spring couldn't do the job.
It's not a new problem.
The flow from the spring has dwindled during late summer for the past several years, said both Haines and Warren Meyer, president of Recreation Resource Management in Phoenix, Ariz.
But they said last week was the first time the spring failed to charge the campground's water system.
Forest Service officials plan to fix the problem by drilling a well at Union Creek, but that work is scheduled for next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
Haines said he intends to drill that well even though the Forest Service's recreation budget is shrinking. Just last month Wallowa-Whitman National Forest officials said they probably will have to reduce maintenance at many campgrounds and other recreation sites over the next several years.
Forest Service's contractor won't work this summer
Due to the lack of water, Recreation Resource Management decided not to operate Union Creek this summer, Meyer said.
Although the company has a contract with the Forest Service to run the campground, both Meyer and Haines said the contract requires the Forest Service to ensure there is adequate water.
Because that's not the case this year or wasn't the case last week, anyway Recreation Resource Management can opt out of the contract without penalty, Haines said.
This is the first time the company has done so in 20-plus years in business, Meyer said.
He said Recreation Resource Management operates about 175 campgrounds nationwide, many of them Forest Service facilities.
"It's an odd situation for us," he said. "But this campground was not designed to be operated without water."
Meyer said Union Creek employees were besieged by complaints from campers on the few occasions during the past five years when water was scarce. Those situations lasted for just a week or so, he said.
"Visitors do not want to be in that campground without water," Meyer said.
Recreation Resource Management also declined to run the two Forest Service campgrounds on the south shore of Phillips Reservoir, and the company might not operate the agency's trio of campgrounds at Anthony Lakes this summer, Haines said.
That means the Forest Service might have to take over all six campgrounds this summer, he said.
Haines said he is prepared to do that if necessary.
"We might be able to bring on some additional help this summer," he said.
Haines said visitors to the Anthony Lakes campgrounds, which are still snowbound and probably won't open until mid-June or early July, shouldn't notice any differences this summer.
"Water supply isn't an issue there," he said.
But campers might notice changes at Union Creek this summer.
Haines said he hopes the spring will continue to spit out enough water to run the entire campground.
But if the spring's flow slows, he said it's possible that certain services drinking water or flush toilets, for example won't be available, at least periodically, in certain parts of the campground.
"We just don't know for sure yet," Haines said. "We'll be monitoring (the spring) closely."
He said Union Creek, which opened in the late 1960s, is among the more popular campgrounds on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
The campground has 58 spaces for trailers and motor homes, more than any other site on the Wallowa-Whitman, as well as 12 tent spaces and 80 picnic sites. Union Creek also has a boat ramp and dock, a fish-cleaning station and paved trails, as well as that most prized, and rarest, of luxuries at a forest camp: flush toilets.
Recreation Resource Management sets camping and day-use fees for Union Creek, and the company pays 6 percent of its gross revenues to the Forest Service.
Haines said he expects the Forest Service will reduce fees if the water flow is too low to run the entire campground.
Meyer said he will re-assign to other campgrounds the six to eight employees who were slated to work at either Union Creek or the Anthony Lakes complex this summer.