Our Voice: Water Follies bringing fun, money to Tri-Cities this weekend

The tents are up and the port-a-potties are in place.

It's time for the annual festival in Columbia Park locals refer to as the boat races.

The highlight of the Water Follies week is of course the Lamb Weston Columbia Cup on Sunday.

Folks will jam both sides of the river to watch the hydroplane races, one of the highlights of summer in the Mid-Columbia. More than 60,000 people are expected to attend during the three days of events.

Hydros will be on the Columbia River beginning today.

One familiar sound will be missing, though -- the familiar roar of military jets that signal to all of us still working in the office that the festivities are under way.

Federal budget cuts have grounded flight teams, and even prevented the Coast Guard from helping Water Follies organizers in finding the moorings in the river used to secure boats used to officiate the races. The Coast Guard won't be able to provide a helicopter normally used throughout the race weekend, either.

But festival-goers still will have plenty to watch in the sky. Water Follies organizers have worked hard to fill the HAPO Over the River Air Show with privately operated planes and aerobatic performers.

Along with the shows on the river and overhead, the Water Follies also is a prime people-watching event. While it's become a family-friendly event since its notorious party days of the 1980s, boat race weekend still is full of pageantry, from those strutting their best tans in bikinis to others who wear shorts once a year with their cowboy boots.

Corporate tents line both sides of the river, bringing in much-needed revenue to the event and providing businesses with a forum to entertain guests and employees. Prime locations go for $5,600 and are sold out for the event.

Food and souvenir booths will be vying for your attention as well.

If the kids lose interest while waiting for the next heat on the river, there's a Kids Zone in Columbia Park with inflatables and other child-friendly features.

Hydroplane races have a long history in the Tri-Cities, and 2013 marks the 48th annual event. The races are something special for our region and part of the fabric of our community. And they bring visitors and their dollars to town.

The Water Follies is a big economic boon to our community at the end of July each summer, with hotel rooms filling up and folks stocking up on supplies for days in the park. Officials estimate the value of the event is $2.25 million to the community. In 2012, the Tri-City Water Follies Association, a largely volunteer organization, was named the Tourism Champion of the Year by the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau.

If you plan to go to the races -- and you should -- the three best things you can do for yourself are slather on the sunscreen, stay hydrated and leave your car behind. Parking can be a challenge on both sides of the river.

Ben Franklin Transit offers hourly bus service into the park from 9 a.m. until noon Saturday and Sunday, leaving from the Knight Street Transit Center in Richland and the Huntington Transit Center in Kennewick.

Beginning about 12:15 p.m., a small bus will run hourly out of the park to the Knight Street Transit Center. Hourly buses to the Huntington Transit Center will start leaving the park at about 12:45 p.m.

Then about 15 minutes after the final event, all of the buses will begin leaving the park for the two transit centers. The cost is $1.50 each way.

We'll see you at the races!