Ditch company explores switch to irrigation district

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. — Wallowa County irrigators and fish managers got an early Christmas present when they learned Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s proposed budget includes $16 million to repair and replace Wallowa Lake Dam.

The 102-year-old dam was deemed in need of repair almost 40 years ago in the wake of the Teton Dam failure in Idaho. Since then the owners of the privately held dam have struggled to find funding, and every year the reconstruction estimate has risen.

The governor’s earmark may finally be the answer to the Wallowa Lake Irrigation District’s funding needs, though the news was a surprise to its president, Dan Butterfield. He said he didn’t realize when he and his fellow board members gave Brown a tour of the dam last spring that the amount the board’s estimated for reconstruction cost would be included in her budget proposal.

“We were really surprised,” Butterfield said. “No one knew she was going to do that — we were totally blind-sided.”

Now the governor’s office wants a breakout of how the Irrigation District will spend the money. Butterfield said McMillan and Associates of Boise completed an engineering design almost 20 years ago, but it has been sitting on a shelf waiting for funding ever since.

After a failed attempt to secure $6 million from Congress in the early 2000s the owners of the dam considered selling water to downstream users, but that also failed to gain traction. Eventually, a new generation of board members tried to tackle the funding problem by looking into USDA loans and employing the assistance of the Farmers Conservation Alliance of Hood River. The alliance is helping the district with its overall water system improvement plan and cost-share opportunities to pay for it.

Joe Dawson serves on the irrigation district board and has worked closely with the Conservation Alliance for a couple years. He said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the funding in the governor’s budget.

“This could change a lot of variables,” Dawson said. “There might be some other opportunities available to put toward all of the district’s infrastructure.”

The $16 million should cover the costs of rebuilding the dam, but fish passage, required by state law, is still up in the air. Jim Harbeck, manager of the Joseph Office of Nez Perce Fisheries, said the tribe co-manages the watershed with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and has a long history of meeting with irrigators and the state to solve the fish passage issue.

For the tribe, fish passage means the possibility of reintroducing sockeye salmon to Wallowa Lake, a native species that disappeared in the 20th century.

Harbeck said, “This is the best shot we’ve had in years at both getting the dam fixed and sockeye reintroduction. If this has a chance of going through legislation there needs to be a concentrated effort of stakeholders coming together and forming a coalition to advocate for it.”

One of the biggest supporters of the dam, besides the governor, is state Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena. He said getting the dam rebuilt has been a priority for him since he took office in 2013.

“I am personally very pleased that the governor has made this one of her priorities and I will be working with the various stakeholders as the bill works its way through the system,” Hansell said. “I am optimistic we can come up with additional funding and a schedule to get the much needed reconstruction done.”

Kate Kondayen, from the governor’s office, said in Brown’s travels around the state she has listened to concerns from  local elected officials, county Farm Bureaus and farmers about hazardous dams; vital infrastructure providing water for agriculture and rural communities.

“In this budget the governor wanted to accomplish two things to address the concerns she heard, which she shares,” Kondayen said. “First, to call attention to the timely problem of dam safety statewide, which is why she created a dam safety task force, and second, to emphasize that it needs more than study — it requires action.”

The funding in the governor’s budget, if passed by the legislature, would come from $79.5 million in lottery bonds earmarked for critical public works and regional infrastructure needs through Business Oregon’s Special Works Fund.

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