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Dillon Dam Removal On Umatilla River Good For Fish Passage And Irrigators
Posted on Friday, August 11, 2017 (PST)

More than 20 years after irrigators threw out the idea in jest, Dillon Dam – the biggest obstacle for migrating fish and lamprey on the Umatilla River – is being removed.


“It wasn’t really a joke, I was half serious,” said Mike Taylor, chairman of the Dillon Irrigation Company (DIC) and the landowner who was one of driving forces behind the eventual removal of the dam.


Since the 1990s, it has taken many players and plenty of moving parts working together to reach the point where an excavator armed with a rock hammer started cracking concrete at the 209-foot-wide dam, which is located upstream of the Interstate 84 bridge crossing between Echo and Stanfield.


It wasn’t easy, said Rick Christian, Umatilla River Habitat Project Leader in the Fisheries Program for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.


“We tried at every stumbling block and obstacle to make it work,” Christian said. “With all the parts and pieces, one signature on a piece of paper at the right time can kill a project.”


Taylor said it took a diligent, determined cooperative effort to see the $1.2 million project through.


“If not for the Tribes stepping up, ODFW (Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife) stepping up, and OWEB (Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board), it wouldn’t have happened,” Taylor said.


“They all saw the need and everybody saw the good parts of it. Any one entity probably could have stopped it.”


Built more than 100 years ago – in 1915 – Dillon Dam created a point of diversion for about 1,600 acres. Until earlier this spring, the dam provided water for Taylor and four other landowners who are part of the DIC.


Maintenance of the 5-foot dam has caused consternation for irrigators – primarily Taylor - who routinely has had to use equipment in the river to remove gravel and woody debris from behind the barrier. With the removal of the dam, that gravel and wood will be free to travel downstream to create better channel habitat.


Since March, water for downstream Dillon Irrigation Co. landowners has been delivered through a 2-mile pipeline taken from the Umatilla River at Westland Diversion Dam upstream from Dillon.


The CTUIR has been instrumental in the $1.2 million project, providing the lion’s share of funding using Bonneville Power Administration dollars. BPA funding of nearly $775,000 included $400,000 that came through the 10-year fish accord agreement with the CTUIR.


Although Dillon Dam has fish ladders, steelhead, fall chinook and coho salmon have historically banged their noses at the base of the dam. That needed to be fixed to allow returning fish, including lampreys, to continue upstream to spawn.


And the fix was more difficult and more costly than expected.


“Everybody had their little piece that they wanted or needed,” Taylor said.


One of the biggest hurdles – before grant applications began – was the okay from the state to move DIC’s point of diversion upstream, a rare occurrence.


“It’s unheard of to move a point of diversion upstream,” Taylor said, “but that’s basically what we did.”


Another factor was the Tribes’ introduction of lamprey into the river. When the first lamprey returned after three years in the ocean, they cleared Maxwell Dam near Interstate 84, but they were thwarted when they reached Dillon Dam. That invariably forced the hand of the parties to find solutions.


Lamprey ladders were installed, but the fish also known as eels had trouble finding the ladders which, like the fish ladders, often times were plugged by debris.


Along with the Tribes’ BPA dollars, several other agencies saw the need and workable solutions. They answered requests for funding.


After the Tribes, the other largest funders are the Oregon Water Enhancement Board (OWEB), which pitched in $374,529 (about $38,203 came through the Umatilla Basin Watershed Council, which wrote most of the OWEB grants), while Taylor, who grows mostly grass hay and runs some 1,300 head of cows on his fourth-generation ranch near Echo, contributed $140,000 of his own money toward the project fruition. More than $300,000 of the OWEB funding went toward construction of the pipeline.

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