Deal a good sign for dam

February 20, 2013 01:11 pm

by KATY NESBITT / The Observer 

State’s feasibility study could help spark repairs of aging Wallowa County dam

WALLOWA — Wallowa Lake’s 100-year-old dam is getting some much needed attention — this time from the governor’s office. 

A deal signed Friday by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and members of a task force includes $250,000 to fund a feasibility study to repair the dam. Fixing it would allow higher water levels and the subsequent release of more water during irrigation season. Construction could be done within five years, but more money will be needed. 

The Wallowa Lake Dam was paid for by a group of farmers in 1918 to irrigate the Upper Wallowa Valley, said Tom Butterfield, president of the Associated Ditch Co. The concrete structure was professionally designed, built and stamped with an engineer’s seal — state of the art for its time.

For the first 40-plus years, the lake provided water for flood irrigation. In the 1960s, farmers started using sprinkler irrigation, which didn’t use as much water for the valley’s crops of hay, wheat and barley.

“We’ve been able to get irrigation done pretty well to survive,” Butterfield said.

The Associated Ditch Co., which owns and operates the dam, has been looking for funding to rebuild the dam since the Army Corps of Engineers re-inspected the dam in 1978 and risk factors caused it to be downgraded — reducing the lake’s storage capacity by 7.8 feet, Butterfield said.

When the water level was reduced, the ditch company decided something needed to be done. 

“All kinds of ways were explored,” said Butterfield, “but the cost got more expensive and the regulations got tighter.”

In 1996 and again in 2006, the dam was repaired, said Butterfield, but an October 2012 inspection report said the dam is “showing its age” and selling water downstream may be the ticket to paying for a new dam.

In 2002, the ditch company had engineering firm Montgomery Watson Harza draw up plans to replace the dam. The estimated cost was $6 million.

By the time the United States Congress passed the Wallowa Lake Dam Rehabilitation and Water Management Act in 2007, the estimated cost had doubled to $12 million. The act would have appropriated $6 million for the project if the ditch company could come up with a matching $6 million from non-public sources. The act was never funded, and the ditch company wasn’t willing to take on that much debt.

Butterfield said there has also been a possibility that the Bureau of Reclamation could rebuild the dam.

“We are, and always have been, for a long time, looking for a way to fund this dam, but it was never an option to lose control of the dam,” said Butterfield.

A study conducted by the Wallowa County Extension Service in 2004 determined the lake’s water contributed a value of $13 million a year to the valley. If the storage level was raised, that value would increase.

Four years ago there was a proposal for Umatilla Basin farmers to fund the other $6 million, said Butterfield, but that proposal failed. However, he said, selling 4,200-acre feet of water is still on the table.

Umatilla County farmers are still potential customers for the “bucket-for-bucket deal” that would allow the same amount of water stored and released from Wallowa Lake to be taken out of the Columbia and used to irrigate high-value crops and benefit value-added industry, said Scott Fairley, one of Kitzhaber’s staffers located in 10 regions around the state who are shepherding projects that stimulate the economy, while protecting the state’s natural resources.

Accessing water from Wallowa Lake is just one of many proposals to increase the amount of water for Umatilla Basin farmers under the umbrella of the “Columbia River-Umatilla Solutions Taskforce” guided by Oregon Solutions.

Oregon Solutions seeks to “develop sustainable solutions to community-based problems that support economic, environmental and community objectives built through collaborative efforts of businesses, government and nonprofits.”

“It’s a big deal, a very important project, and one that could be transformative with the cooperation we are now seeing with the group,” said Greg Wolf, who serves as Kitzhaber’s intergovernmental and regional solutions director.

Wolf said the collaboration started with a trip the governor took in April and the various agencies, nonprofits and industry representatives began meeting in June.

“There have been a lot of meetings and a lot of meetings in between. We’ve had good participation of the stakeholders,” said Wolf.

Early on in the process, Jim Harbeck of the Nez Perce Tribe, Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts and David Hockett, representing the Associated Ditch Co., attended a preliminary meeting. Harbeck said it was a case where each of the three entities has a common interest in seeing the dam repaired.

“The tribe’s position hasn’t changed for years,” said Harbeck. “We sent representatives to Washington, D.C., multiple times to provide congressional testimony in support of the Wallowa Lake Rehabilitation Act.”

The tribe’s interest, said Harbeck, is specifically fish related.

“If this is a step toward restoring healthy fish populations, we are in favor of it, that’s always been a long-term goal, and it might provide an opportunity for sockeye salmon reintroduction,” Harbeck said.

Roberts said she attended a meeting in La Grande last fall with the governor’s economic and community solutions team to see if money could be found to rehabilitate the dam so it can hold more water.

Bruce Eddy, Northeast Oregon regional manager for Fish and Wildlife, said Oregon Solutions is spearheading the group identifying problems and needs and developing alternatives.

A new Wallowa Lake dam has to be safe and efficient, but it also, by state statute, will be required to have fish passage.

“When you change something big, like do a major improvement, then you have to put fish passage in,” said Eddy.

Fairley said the premise of the collaboration is multi-jurisdictional.

“The governor said he will support what is good for the basin’s economy and good for fish and the environment where everyone agrees,” said Fairley.

Mike Hayward, Wallowa County Board of Commissioners chairman, said the governor was very interested in creating some kind of deal between the Wallowa Lake Dam and the Umatilla irrigators. 

“This has been an issue as long as I’ve been a commissioner and there is a significant increase in interest from the governor’s office about getting something done than there has been historically,” Hayward said. “I think that is a good thing and it will help pull things together to move something forward.”