WALLOWA LAKE — Although sales for bonds to fund refurbishment of the Wallowa Lake Dam were supposed to begin this month, the Oregon Legislature had to put that on hold for a year because the COVID-19 pandemic caused a sharp drop in Oregon Lottery revenue.
But lawmakers and dam stakeholders are optimistic the funding will come through this year.
“What they have decided to do is include those in discussion for this year’s funding cycle. Because they were in the governor’s, that gives us some options,” state Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, said Thursday, March 25.
He said that although the lottery funding is “trending in the right direction,” it may not be necessary to rely on the bonds and the funding could come out of the fund out of general fund or another fund.
“We won’t need to go to lottery bonds in that case,” he said.
The plan was to raise $14 million through sale of bonds from lottery revenue and begin selling them this month, with work on the dam to begin after irrigation season ends Sept. 30. Another $2 million of the $16 million project will be raised from “other sources,” said Dan Butterfield, president of the Wallowa Lake Irrigation District, which owns the dam.
“There’s been some outside interest expressing a desire to help,” he said. “But we may have to fund that ourselves.”
He said the project is waiting for the state money to be assured before seeking the additional funds.
“That has to be solidified before we break ground,” he said.
Butterfield was encouraged that the governor and lawmakers seem enthusiastic about funding the dam this year.
“She’s the reason we got put on the budget in the beginning,” he said of Gov. Kate Brown. “It’s nice to have support at that level.”
In addition to the irrigation district, the stakeholders in the dam project include the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Last fall, all four entities signed a memorandum of agreement to support the project. The latter three stakeholders are primarily interested in natural resources concerns at the dam, such as a fish passage from the Wallowa River to the lake and downstream watersheds. The irrigation district manages the lake level and outflows for agricultural irrigation.
The dam and more than 30 other projects were put on hold when the June lottery report came in below the four-to-one ratio needed to sell bonds to fund them. That means $4 million in lottery revenue must come in to sell $1 million in bonds. The report came in at only 3.1 to one.
Hansell said final word on lottery funding won’t come in until June. If it’s sufficient, bonds can be sold beginning in April 2022, with construction to begin that fall.
Plans call for an improved spillway, to add more concrete for weight, replacing the five conduit gates with new ones and to upgrade the electrical and instrumentation.
The most difficult element in the plans is that of the addition of a fish passage. What type of passage has yet to be determined, Butterfield said. The tribes want the fish passage to restore the ability of sockeye salmon — and other fish — to make Wallowa Lake their home. Steelhead, coho salmon, bull trout, mountain whitefish and rainbow trout are all species that can live in the lake.
At their March 17 meeting, the Wallowa County commissioners agreed to send a letter addressed to the governor and the top officials in the state Senate and House of Representatives expressing their support for the dam project.
“Understanding the project was delayed due to budget constraints the state weathered over the past year caused by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we trust that fixing the Wallowa Lake Dam will continue to be on the forefront of priorities for rural Oregon,” the letter stated in part.
“All indications are that there’s an overwhelming amount of support” for the project, Commissioner Todd Nash said during the meeting. “We were bumped back in the queue for the next funding round of lottery funds that weren’t what was anticipated.”
Hansell said he had seen the letter and was encouraged by it, but believes similar letters from other counties with projects on the line have been sent.
Butterfield said that as discussion of the various interests among the stakeholders continue, their relationship has improved.
“We’re developing a really good relationship with Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes and ODFW,” he said.
All entities are remaining optimistic.
“We’re assuming we’ll get funded,” Butterfield said. “We’re hoping to have a big party in a year or so” to celebrate the funding coming through.