Wallowa Dam

The Wallowa Lake Dam will be rebuilt with $14 million from the Oregon Legislature. Planning is already underway.

JOSEPH, Ore. — A fix for the aging Wallowa Lake Dam is on the horizon with $14 million from the state of Oregon and a series of stakeholder meetings on the calendar.

Gov. Kate Brown included $16 million in her proposed 2020-2021 biennium budget to rehabilitate the 103-year-old dam. Earlier this year the Legislature approved the project, whittling the amount down to $14 million and requiring the stakeholders to create a memorandum of agreement spelling out the terms on which the four parties agree.

The dam, owned and managed by the Wallowa Lake Irrigation District, provides water to upper Wallowa Valley farms. As the district’s board has sought funding it has also discussed state-required fish passage options with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla.

Dan Butterfield, the irrigation district’s president, said, “The funding for a new dam cures a fish problem and a farm problem.”

With the current funding, the dam reconstruction project manager, Mort McMillen of McMillen, Jacob and Associates, said fish passage would likely be “trap and haul” — trapping adult, returning sockeye and moving them around the dam and into the lake. A future option might be a system similar to those made by Whooshh Innovations — a facility into which fish swim and are propelled over a dam.

“We ended up with trap-and-haul system, but could upgrade ... at some point,” McMillen said. “That was the compromise — multiple benefits that fit within the budget.”

Another compromise proposed in the final hours of the legislative session was a request for allocating some stored water for fish and wildlife benefit. McMillen said the district made an agreement to do so.

Anticipating funding would one day become available, the district hired McMillen to draw plans for a new dam. Because of the risk of a failure, he said the dam has been running at 72% of capacity since 1994. The rehabilitated dam would provide more water to irrigators and allow for more water to be released, increasing stream flows for fish.

“With rehabilitation the district will be able to run the dam for another 100 years and continue to restrict the lake’s release for safer operation,” McMillen said.

The grant may not be available until 2021, but Butterfield said the board is eager to get the final engineering design drafted and permitting underway, so its members are exploring loan options.

“Once we get the MOA signed, that’s as good as gold to go to a bank and get a loan,” Butterfield said. “We put feelers out to a couple different banks.”

Nez Perce Tribe Fisheries’ managers have long anticipated a reconstructed dam to bring sockeye salmon back to Wallowa Lake. This summer Shane Vatland, project manager for Nez Perce Tribe Fisheries, oversaw research on Wallowa Lake that measured water temperature, dissolved oxygen, nutrient levels, abundance of zooplankton, mysis shrimp and kokanee and analyzed biological samples.

“We plan to collect similar data this autumn and all of next year, including samples from spawned kokanee in the river at the head of the lake," Vatland said. "These data and subsequent analyses, combined with ODFW’s long-term monitoring of the kokanee population, will provide valuable information for potential sockeye salmon reintroduction.”

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