Ditch company explores switch to irrigation district

Expense of repairing Wallowa Lake dam leads private company to explore public option


For the Capital Press

Published on May 16, 2017 2:11PM

The Wallowa Lake Dam has been in need of repair for 40 years. The owners of the dam are forming an irrigation district in order to secure low-interest loans to fix the dam and do water efficiency projects along its five ditches.

Katy Nesbitt/For the Capital Press

The Wallowa Lake Dam has been in need of repair for 40 years. The owners of the dam are forming an irrigation district in order to secure low-interest loans to fix the dam and do water efficiency projects along its five ditches.

JOSEPH, Ore. – For more than 40 years the Joseph Oregon’s Associated Ditch Company has struggled to find the money to fix its aging Wallowa Lake dam. This spring the private company announced it is exploring an old idea with new enthusiasm.

Exhausting several avenues over the years, including selling water to a downstream user, the ditch company’s board has found the support it needs to form an irrigation district, making funding such as low-interest Clean Water State Revolving Fund loans easier to access.

Following a rash of dam inspections in the wake of the 1976 Teton Dam failure in Idaho, the dam was deemed unsafe to store the ditch company’s entire water allotment. In order to bring the dam back to full storage capacity and protect water used by upper Wallowa Valley farmers valued at $36,079,000 per year, the dam needs to be rebuilt. Any reconstruction, Tom Butterfield, former Associated Ditch Company president said, must include fish passage. That dollar amount, he said, is still being studied.

Butterfield’s son Dan is now the ditch company’s president. He said forming a district had been considered in the past.

Jay McFetridge, a multi-generational Wallowa Lake water user, said when his grandfather was president of the ditch company in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and his father in the ‘90s the worry was over the equitability, or perceived lack there of, in how votes are tallied among water users under the rules of a district versus the one vote per acre agreement currently used.

“My dad said his biggest reason that it wouldn’t work, and they would not pursue at all, was because of the voting,” McFetridge said.

This time the suggestion came from Nate James of the Natural Resource Conservation Service when he was asked to help the board with its irrigation modernization plan.

Butterfield said, “About a year ago we met with Nate to look at financing for piping spur ditches, screening the ditches and possibly even putting in water measuring devices.”

James said he has worked with Wallowa Lake water users individually to upgrade their systems, but with the scope and scale of the ditch company’s modernization needs, including reconstruction of the dam, they needed extra funding sources not available to a private ditch company. A district, formed under state statute, would hold public meetings and be able to vote and process decisions in a timely manner.

“They could see the benefits were very positive to going down this path,” James said.

For technical assistance, James asked Farmers Conservation Alliance to work with the ditch company’s modernization committee. During their initial meeting, fixing the dam was discussed.

The alliance’s executive director, Julie O’Shea, said her organization started out manufacturing fish screens for irrigation districts, but after years of designing and installing screens she said her staff found it difficult to fix one piece of an irrigation system without opening a box of other issues.

“We realized there was a great need for irrigation districts to have people come in with expertise – not just from an engineering perspective, but a financial and community-based one,” O’Shea said.

With help from Energy Trust of Oregon, the alliance started working with districts all over the state, serving as project manager. To date, they’ve worked with 11 districts on irrigation modernization plans.

In April, a little more than a year after their first meeting with NRCS and the alliance, the Associated Ditch Company’s board of directors presented their irrigation district proposal to the Wallowa County Commissioners. Rebecca Knapp, the Associated Ditch Company’s attorney, said following the publication of a series of notices, the commissioners will sign an order calling for an election of the landowners within the boundary of the new district.

Dan Butterfield said besides overwhelming backing from the landowners, there is a lot more support statewide to repair the dam than the ditch company realized.

“Everyone seems to know where Wallowa Lake is,” Butterfield said.


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