It’s come to my attention that concerns have been expressed about the latest fish habitat/river restoration project taking place on the 6 Ranch, a couple of miles west of Enterprise on the south side of Highway 82. My intention is to both answer questions as well as promote public awareness about this endeavor with this brief column.
The project currently being constructed is designed to enhance habitat, primarily for spring Chinook salmon and summer steelhead, as well as all other aquatic species native to the Wallowa River. While these fish may not strike a chord for everyone, I hope this editorial will help provide understanding as to why others care and how it affects you.
In 1980, the US Congress passed the Northwest Power Act, a law that in its simplest terms, requires Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Army Corps of Engineers (the action agencies who built, own, and manage the dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers) to mitigate for the negative effects the dams have on Endangered Species Act-listed salmon and steelhead. The undesirable impact of the dams on fish populations, particularly those anadromous species (salmon, steelhead and lamprey) who must pass over or through the dams on their juvenile migration to the ocean and again on their return trip to their natal rivers to spawn, is unmistakable.
Why should that matter to you? When you turn on anything from a computer to an irrigation pump, you will be using electricity purchased through one of the action agencies (in Wallowa County, most of the electricity comes through Pacific Power, distributed energy bought from Bonneville Power). What we tend to forget is the Pacific Northwest enjoys the cheapest electricity in the country, thanks largely to the action agencies’ construction and operation of the dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers. In fact, despite the use of rate payer dollars funding habitat restoration, on average Oregon pays half the price per kilowatt hour of New York and Connecticut. The Northwest Power Act created an equation: if you’re going to continue to generate and distribute cheap electricity, you must create a process whereby the loss at the dams is offset by the enhancement of habitat in Snake and Columbia River tributaries.
Many decades ago, the 6 Ranch was the site of a publicly-funded project to channelize the river against the nearby hillside, a common practice for the time to alleviate flooding in the valley. This type of stream modification was formerly a popular course of action, repeated throughout the Grande Ronde and Wallowa watersheds, and certainly aligned with values of that era. Flash forward to present, where the 6 Ranch project is using mitigation funds to benefit native fish, the ranch itself, employ contractors, and ultimately invest a large chunk of change in the local economy. This project is a prime example of restoration which landowners can rarely achieve on their own, and demonstrates the value in using local direction to spend public funds in a way which aligns with the priorities of residents.
I welcome inquiries about Grande Ronde Model Watershed (GRMW) projects. The GRMW, together with the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Nez Perce Tribe, Union and Wallowa SWCD’s, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S Forest Service, Wallowa Resources, several other agencies and many landowners, have over 20 years of history of using fish-dedicated monies to improve habitat in Union and Wallowa counties. Benefits associated with this investment don’t stop in the rivers, but extends throughout the area in the form of strengthening tourism industries, enhancing ranch operations, and increasing local construction jobs. It is our goal to use restoration funds in a way which is mutually beneficial to local communities and native fish, both of which make this a wonderful place to call home.
Jeff Oveson, a Wallowa County native, is the Executive Director of the Grande Ronde Model Watershed.