On Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, a 50th anniversary ceremony was held at the John Day Dam powerhouse. As part of the ceremony, Kevin Moynahan, operations project manager at the dam, recapped the history of the facility.
“The Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla district began the design work for the John Day Lock and Dam in 1955. The first construction funds were appropriated in 1958, and the planned construction period was ten years,” he told an audience gathered outside the spillway for the ceremony.
“As you can imagine, building a facility like this — in the middle of the Columbia River, while maintaining navigation and fish passage — had its challenges.”
Moynahan noted that miles of freeway and railroad tracks had to be relocated, and temporary gas and other utility pipelines were put in place during construction.
In April 1968, water releases from upstream facilities were carefully coordinated with the Bureau of Reclamation, Idaho Power Company, and Bonneville Power Administration to fill “Lake Umatilla.”
The filling took five days and was completed on April 21, 1968. That fall, on Sept. 28, an estimated 6,000 people gathered on the north (Washington) shore of the dam for its dedication.
Dowen Jones, the mayor of Rufus, said at the celebration that the project has had a big impact on the community over the years. “Rufus was incorporated because of all the people here for the construction of the dam,” he said, and those workers still play a critical role in the small town’s economy, which relies heavily on the dam, the nearby highway, and tribal and sport fishing.
Approximately 135 people attended the celebration.
The dam, which Vice President Hubert Humphry described as “the wisest investment that a people ever made and more of them can be made,” did not come without cost, said Janet Herrin, chief operating officer of the Bonneville Power Administration, which manages the transmission of power from the dams.
“We all know the value and benefits of the dam,” she said. “But we also know the costs — the impact to salmon, steelhead and our native cultures.”
She spoke of changes to the north side fish ladders to better serve lamprey, which can now cross much faster, as well as changes to turbine design and water flow for better downstream passage of juvenile fish.
She also noted that both the Corps and BPA are now working in partnership with the tribes as well toward a common goal of protecting the river’s fisheries.
Speaking at the conclusion of the ceremony was Eric V. Hansen, director of regional business, Northwest division, for the Corps of Engineers.
“We manage the dynamic tension between two elements of near religious significance for many, cheap power and abundant salmon,” he said. The dam reflects a vision of 10 dams on the Columbia River, as conceived at the turn of the century, he said.
“They are all a reflection of the values, ideas and priorities of the time,” he said.
Today, those values, ideas and priorities have to be re-examined. “We have some huge challenges ahead of us. We have a lot of infrastructure that is really old,” he said, and maintaining or replacing that infrastructure is a done at a huge cost.
“What do we do about it now, what do we do with those things? Walk away?” he said.
He noted that attempts to privatize the dams ran aground very quickly: While companies with the financial strength to operate and maintain the dams could be found, the risk was too great.
“A buyer with the capacity to take the risk involved with a facility that is holding back the Columbia River could not be found,” he said.