Wallowa dam

The Wallowa Lake Dam will be rebuilt if $16 million in Gov. Kate Brown's proposed budget passes the legislature.

JOSEPH, Ore. — With $16 million earmarked in Gov. Kate Brown’s budget to rebuild the Wallowa Lake Dam, irrigators are preparing for its reconstruction in August 2020.

The Wallowa Lake Irrigation District owns the 100 year-old dam, long in need of repair to ensure safety for downstream communities. When news broke that the governor’s budget included money for the dam, the district’s board of directors hired McMillen Jacobs Associates of Boise to manage the project.

At a public meeting Jan. 16 in Joseph, Morton McMillen said his timeline is aggressive, but doable, putting shovel to dirt in 18 months and completing construction by the end of June 2021.

McMillen said, “We need to implement a schedule that ensures completion within the state funding cycles.”

The board has been getting ready for this moment. Dan Butterfield, the district’s board president, said McMillen first drew a conceptual reconstruction design in 2002, but money was always an issue.

“Mort’s been ready for a long time,” Butterfield said. “We got really close a couple times to getting funding and then it fell out.”

Now that funding is on the horizon, McMillen said he is focusing on regulatory and permit issues and refining the conceptual design in order to choose the best alternative by July 1.

In February, McMillen said he will present the work plan and schedule to the governor’s office followed by meetings with the office of Oregon Dam Safety and local fisheries managers Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Nez Perce Tribe.

“We will have the pre-planning work complete when the full budget is allocated,” McMillen said.

That starts about a one-year clock for McMillen’s team to prepare the final plans and specifications for the dam rehabilitation, including fish passage.

In August 2020 the lake will be drawn down and the dam demolished in September. McMillen said he leaving the foundation of the existing dam because it has adhered to soil, creating a seal, and will build on top of it.

The concrete at the base is friction locked and we don’t want to dig it up,” McMillen said. “We will peel off the bad concrete and encapsulate the whole thing — and have a 100 year-dam by doing that.”

While additional funding may be sought to help pay for screening downstream diversions, McMillen said he anticipates he can achieve all of the rehabilitation goals with the $16 million in governor’s the budget.

The dam will be commissioned, complete with fish passage in 2021, McMillen said.

Fish passage opens the possibility of reintroducing sockeye salmon to Wallowa Lake, a species long extinct from the Grande Ronde River system.

Jeff Heindel, project manager for McMillen Jacobs Associates, said the brood stock will likely come from Redfish Lake in Idaho where Snake River sockeye were reintroduced several years ago.

“It’s a great system to reintroduce sockeye,” Heindel said. “We know the forest health benefits of anadromous fish — our generation is already seeing the impacts of lakes without salmon carcasses.”

Irrigators along five ditches benefit directly from diverted water from Wallowa Lake, but Aaron Maxwell of the Nez Perce Tribe asked if Wallowa River downstream water users were being taken into account.

Joe Dawson, the district’s secretary, said a lower Wallowa River Valley irrigator, Dennis Henderson, requested that he and his neighbors be included in conversations about rebuilding the dam.

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