Paddling the Winchester Wasteway
by John Marshall
The Winchester Wasteway, south of Moses Lake offers an outstanding and unique paddling experience. This narrow ribbon of water in the desert did not exist before Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. Irrigation of crops through-out the Columbia Basin has raised the water level filling many depressions to make lakes and ponds. Excess water runs off into the “wasteway,” a channel of water southeast of Quincy and in the middle of a nowhere. The section paddlers frequent is from Dodson Road to near Potholes Reservoir, which the Winchester Wasteway spills into. The country is desert and the land is part of the South Columbia Basin Wildlife Area administered by Washington State Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Most paddlers take out on Road C which is roughly 2.5 creek miles before Potholes Reservoir. It is hard to know exactly how long this trip is, as the wasteway continuously loops back on itself. My guess is roughly 20 miles to the take-out at Road C. If you paddle on beyond Road C, it is about 2.5 miles to the Potholes Reservoir and then an additional four miles on the reservoir to a take-out at Potholes State Park. You will need a Discover Pass or WDFW parking permit to leave your car at the put-in at Dodson Road or at Road C. If you take out at the state park, you will also need a Discover Pass or need to buy a day pass.
Photo right by Theo Marshall. The two-step falls at the bottom of the Winchester Wasteway
Access and Put-In. Take the Dodson Road exit off of I-90 and drive about 3.5 miles to a gravel parking lot with a boat ramp and pit toilet. The start of the trip is inauspicious – a mud hole in the middle of no where.
Take-Out. Road C is located off of Highway 262 about four miles west of Potholes Reservoir. Look for a row of tall poplars. Drive out a gravel road crossing Frenchman Hills Wasteway to reach a gravel parking lot at the Winchester Wasteway. There will be a footbridge and a gauging station.
Difficulty for top section with exit at Road C: 1+ to 2- (advanced beginner to low intermediate). Difficulty for last 2.5 miles: 2+ (advanced intermediate)
Paddling the Wasteway:
- What you will probably see right away is water birds. The Winchester Wasteway is a bird watcher’s delight. In spring, you’ll see black-necked stilts, red-winged black birds, yellow-headed black birds, long-billed marsh wrens, black crowned night herons, great blue herons, snowy egrets, common egrets, snipes, dowitchers, mallards, and hawks. In late winter, you may see tundra swans. In waterfowl season, expect to share the area with hunters (it is a WDFW property after all).
- The Winchester Wasteway can be done either as a long day trip or as a camping trip. To really enjoy it, plan on spending two nights out. Camping is primitive. Bring along water from home. Expect to tent on the sand. The whole area is sandy, with a strip of marsh plants and Russian olive trees where there is water. Phragmites, a tall grass-like plant, dominates the margins of the wasteway. Phragmites is not native. Russian olive trees are abundant. While offering firewood and some shade, they have vicious thorns. Tumbleweeds and cheat grass are also plentiful. Native plants are represented by bitterbrush, rabbit brush, Indian rice grass, cattails, and hard stem bulrush. At night listen to the coyotes, and the low hum of freeway traffic on I-90 in the distance.
- The paddling experience defies standard categorization. Most of the time the current is very slow, and the water depth shallow. There are places though, where the depth may be over your head. In low water expect to drag your boat over sand bars or through mud flats. In places the stream breaks into multiple threads dividing the flow. In high water expect some tricky corners with the flow pushing you into Russian olive trees. The section of the wasteway from Road C to the reservoir has some actual whitewater with standing waves.
- Below Road C it is about 2.5 miles of paddling to the Potholes Reservoir but this section of water is completely different. Upstream of Road C there may be a tricky spot or two, but below Road C the wasteway offers constant challenges. All of the flow is gathered in one channel and the gradient ticks up. Russian olive trees line both banks, making it difficult to see what’s coming, and it’s hard to get out and scout. Expect to find fallen trees in the current. At high flows don’t do it. A tree laying down in fast current is dangerous, even if the water is only two-feet deep. The back ferry is an important skill here. A good hand saw should also be taken, so that you can prune hazards as you go. Take the inside of corners and paddle backwards at an angle to the current. It is difficult to manage a boat loaded with camping gear in the tight spaces here. At high flows don’t even think about it. Even at moderate flows, there is a brief distance between the first wave set and the ledge drop in about two hundred yards.
- A two-step waterfall punctuates the end of the Winchester Wasteway, just before it flows into the backwaters of Potholes Reservoir. This is a mandatory portage. From the ledge drop to the waterfall it is about two hundred and fifty yards. There is an easy take out in a wide eddy on the right. If you can navigate the Winchester Wasteway in this lower section, you will be rewarded by the choice of some very nice camp sites.
- The final paddle on Potholes Reservoir takes you into bass hunter territory. Expect to see high-powered boats with glittering hulls, while you listen to amped-up music and the revving of engines as the bass hunters dash off after their quarry. You will also see western grebes, cormorants, and gulls. Giant carp will be startled as you pass by. The lake paddle section to the boat dock at Potholes Reservoir State Park is about four miles. In windy weather this stretch of flatwater can be slow going.
Additional Information. This write-up from Paddling Washington (Mountaineers Books), gives a good overview of the Winchester Wasteway.
Mosquitoes. Bugs are minimal in early spring but, by early summer, there are clouds of them.
Shuttle Idea. The roads are conducive to doing the car shuttle with a bike or mountain bike. The shuttle is about 16 miles long.
Waterflow. While there is a gauge on the wasteway, it does not give real-time information about the water flow. The historic average flow is 120 cfs. Minimum flow is 71 cfs. Maximum flow is 210 cfs. Between December and mid-April the flow is usually kept between 85 and 100 cfs. March, April, May, and June are usually good times to do the wasteway but flow rates can vary significantly from day to day depending on irrigation demands and weather. A rain event, for example might suddenly reduce the amount of water being demanded by farmers and increase the amount of water being spilled off into the wasteway.
|Month||10-year average daily flow (cfs)||10-year high flow (cfs)||10-year low flow (cfs)|
|138 cfs||73 cfs|
|Apr 1-15||90 -95||160||67|
|Apr 16-30||110 – 115||196||90|
|May||130 – 135||200||100|
|Sept||125 – 130||152||100|
|Oct||145 – 150||181||117|
Mosquitoes are minimal in early spring but, by early summer, there are clouds of them.
Leave It Better Than You Found It: This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull some noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails, don’t ride or walk wet trails when you’re leaving ruts/footprints deeper than ¼ inch…
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.