Saturday, May 27, 2023
By: Bill Bradshaw
WALLOWA LAKE — U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley got his first look at the soon-to-be-replaced Wallowa Lake Dam during his 15th visit to Wallowa County for a town hall-style visit Sunday, May 28.
A dozen or so people joined Merkley, D-Ore., at the dam and another 50 or so gathered at the nearby Hurricane Creek Grange for a town hall-style meeting afterward.
Merkley was full of questions, this being his first visit to the dam. Dan Butterfield, president of the Wallowa Lake Irrigation District, which owns the dam, was just as full with the answers.
While awaiting the senator’s arrival at the dam, Butterfield ticked off the list of funding and its sources for the estimated $21 million project.
The biggest chunk of change was $16 million from Oregon Lottery funds. Another $5 million came from a Business Oregon grant with another $1 million available from Business Oregon and another $1 million loan at 3.86%, Butterfield said. He also mentioned $750,000 from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for engineering work and another $500,000 from ODFW for design of the consolidated diversion of the Wallowa River.
“We don’t have that secure yet,” he said.
He was grateful to Oregon’s senators for their ability to obtain funding.
“Merkley (and Sen. Ron Wyden) got us $2 million that we can’t use on the dam, but we can use it off-site,” he said.
That money could go toward irrigation district projects that could free up money the district could then use on the dam.
“There’s still money trickling in from all over the place,” he said. “We’ve got enough money to get started.”
Plans are to break ground in fall of 2024 after irrigation season ends for the year, Butterfield said. The project has been delayed twice for a year each time — once because the COVID-19 pandemic squelched lottery sales and a second year because of delays in getting permits and other details, he said.
Interested in fish
Merkley was interested in the fish passage that is a legal requirement of work on the dam.
Butterfield said plans are to build a trap-and-haul system from the foot of the dam. The trap-and-haul system involves creating a catch basin at the base of the dam that will attract fish. From there, fish are collected, placed in a water-filled truck and hauled to wherever in the lake it is determined they should be unloaded.
He said it is hoped that something else can be worked out later, such as a fish ladder. But for now, plans are to put in the catch basin on the west side of the dam.
“A fish ladder’s been brought up a lot, but the adjacent landowners don’t want to have anything to do with it on their land,” he said. “It would stretch out the lake 400 and some feet and take out their private beach. They just don’t want to have anything to do with that. It could always be added later, so right now we’ll do trap and haul.”
Butterfield said last fall that the constant rise and fall of the lake level and the freezing in the winter make a fish ladder impractical. That’s not to mention the cost.
“It would take more concrete to do a fish ladder than it would to do the dam,” he said. “It’s not part of the conversation anymore.”
He also wanted to know about the fish themselves. He asked which breeds of fish historically migrated to Wallowa Lake. Anton Chiono, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said sockeye salmon, bull trout and steelhead are the principal species known to migrate to the lake. Chiono said there was concern bull trough would eat the sockeye smolts, but he said that’s a problem they can work out later.
“It’s a problem, but it’s a good one to have,” he said.
Those present at the dam were eager to mention those who could not attend. Although the irrigation district owns the dam, the dam project is a collaboration between numerous stakeholders. In addition to the district, ODFW and the Confederated Tribes, stakeholders include the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management. Minor stakeholders also are involved, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has jurisdiction over bull trout; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and others.
Butterfield also spoke of another key player who is not an actual stakeholder.
“Fortunately, we’ve got an engineer who’s been working on this for 25 years,” he said of Mort McMillen, of McMillen, Jacobs and Associates of Boise. “He grew up in Enterprise.”
Butterfield spoke highly of McMillen.
“Having him on board is a big plus,” he said. “He did a lot of work for us at no cost.”
Joe Dawson, secretary and a board member of the irrigation district, agreed the project was long-term.
“Everyone on our board’s now second generation,” he said. “Our dads all were in on it and it’s not something we take lightly.”
Merkley said he was pleased to see a project he’s worked on coming together.
“There are so many different organizations that have come together to make it happen and there are more chapters yet to be written,” he said.
“We’ve been working to help out and get them that extra $2 million to help with the dam and the pieces that are associated with it downstream,” he added.
At the Grange later for the town hall, Merkley addressed an enthusiastic crowd and took questions and tried to offer solutions.
One of the largest issues Wallowa County is facing involves a lack of affordable housing. Merkley said he’s been working on a bill that would ban hedge funds and other investors from owning large numbers of homes by establishing a $20,000 federal tax penalty per single family home owned in excess of 100.
Hedge funds are financial partnerships that use pooled funds and employ strategies to earn active returns for their investors.
Merkley said that several years ago, when houses were being sold for 50 cents on the dollar and hedge funds were the only ones with the resources to afford them, the senator advocated that hedge funds be banned from taking advantage of such deals.
“I advocated that those homes be offered to families for three to six months so that families could buy them instead of hedge funds,” but his plan was foiled, he said.
He said he introduced the bill into the last session of Congress and will introduce it again this session.
“Houses should be homes for families, not a free ride for Wall Street,” he said, which drew a round of applause.
The senator also addressed other local issues — in particular, the bill before the Legislature on compensating livestock owners for losses due to wolf depredation and the Greater Idaho ballot measure that would direct the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners to consider the county’s interests in becoming a county of Idaho.
Merkley noted that in Eastern Oregon, wolves receive no federal protection, but there is a federal matching grant for a state predation fund from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife. That grant provides the state with $200,000.
“I’ll leave the details of how they craft the predation fund to the state, but I certainly support paying for and support the federal matching funds helping out,” Merkley said.
As for Greater Idaho, the senator said he doesn’t like the idea of splitting the state, but the rural-urban divide is nothing new.
“I saw (the split) as a kid in Douglas County,” he said, and he noted that a realignment of Oregon’s borders would come before the U.S. Congress only if it had been approved by the Idaho and Oregon legislatures.