Wallowa Lake dam

A newly reconstructed dam complete with a sockeye salmon-friendly fish ladder will encase and reinforce the existing Wallowa Lake Dam. Work on the dam is slated to begin in August. This dam and those of the Columbia River system are the topics of discussion at this year’s Winter Fishtrap Jan. 17 to 19 at the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture.

The Oregon Legislature has passed and Governor Kate Brown has signed HB 5030, which provides state lottery-generated funds of $2.5 million to the new integrated health center. Importantly, the bill also includes a $14 million appropriation for the reconstruction of Wallowa Lake Dam.

“We are very excited about this opportunity, and we do hope to make the most of it,” said Wallowa Lake Irrigation District (WLID) board member Joe Dawson.

The reconstructed structure will include a fish ladder, allowing the reintroduction of sockeye salmon to the lake. Because these will be reintroduced fish, when they are placed in the Wallowa River system, they will not be listed as Endangered or Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“We are very happy that the State has recognized the need in northeast Oregon for the reconstruction of this dam,” said Jim Harbeck of Nez Perce Fisheries in Joseph. “It’s been a long term goal for the tribes to bring sockeye home to Wallowa Lake. They belong in Wallowa Lake. The funding to rehab the existing dam will make that possible.”

The Wallowa Lake Irrigation District, which owns the dam, contracted with McMillen Jacobs Associates of Boise to design the project once the bill, initially including a $16 million appropriation, seemed destined for passage.

The dam will be a reconstruction rather than a remove-and-replace project, said Mort McMillen, principal engineer on the project. “We will be adding concrete to the upstream face of the dam, and actually encasing the entire dam in new concrete to make it heavier and more stable,” he said. “We will rebuild the spillway and provide a fish ladder. The idea is to encase and reuse the dam, with modifications.”

The basic design has been done in consultation with the Nez Perce Tribe, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Oregon office of Dam Safety.

The reconstructed dam will raise Wallowa Lake only to the level previously set by the existing dam. “Water levels were lowered for safety considerations until the dam could be modified,” McMillen said. “So the reconstructed structure will seem to raise water levels in the lake. It will — but only back to the level where they were when the dam was functioning properly.”

The project’s timeline includes design and permitting processes through 2020, begin dam reconstruction in late August and early September 2021, with completion sometime in 2022.

The $14 million appropriation will have to be supplemented by grants or other funds to meet the $16 million cost of the reconstructed dam. But McMillan is confident that the funds will be available.

The appropriation for the dam was secured by the work of Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Athena) and Rep. Greg Barreto (R-Cove). The funding will help refurbish the Wallowa Lake dam to meet current safety standards and will allow fish passage for the first time in more than 100 years.

Other eastern Oregon projects funded or partly funded by the bill include $1.4 million for an early learning center expansion in the Port of Morrow and $1.6 million for expansion of mental health services for the Umatilla County Jail.

In a joint statement, Hansell and Barreto said, “These projects are essential in building up the Eastern Oregon economy and ensuring that our constituents have access to high quality health care in their communities and don’t have to drive hundreds of miles away. The investments in vital infrastructure for irrigation, educational facilities and health care will set a strong foundation for a prosperous Eastern Oregon. Securing this funding would not have been possible without the hard work of local leaders and engaged constituents from throughout the region, who came to the Capitol to make their case. This is a great day for Eastern Oregon.”

Both Hansell and Barreto had been meeting with constituent groups since 2017 in helping them secure funding for these projects.

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