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Posted 2/5/2019

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By Sharin Gavin

Sept. 20, 2018, the Portland District commemorated the 50th anniversary of the ceremonial spillway opening at John Day Lock and Dam, which took place Sept. 28, 1968.

The John Day project had first been conceived decades earlier, in 1932, but was put on the shelf until 1948. It was another seven years until design and construction were assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla District; the first construction funds were appropriated in 1958. 

Construction of the large dam lasted ten years, and the resulting structures spanned the Columbia River from Oregon to Washington – 5,869 feet in all. 

Building a structure like this – in the middle of the Columbia River – had its challenges. But as each situation presented itself, well-coordinated teams that included contractors, designers, engineers, financial experts, scientists, and many others, developed innovative solutions so that none of the challenges significantly affected the overall schedule. 

As a result of the sophistication of operating procedures developed between 1958 and the mid-1960s – including the introduction of computers and extensive integration of power distribution systems – in 1967 the Northwest Division Engineer decided that it was best for The Dalles and John Day dams to be allocated to the Portland District for improved coordination. 

July 12, 1968, the first of 16 hydropower generating units went online, and Sept. 28 of that year, an estimated 6000 people gathered at the north side of the John Day Lock and Dam for its dedication. 

In his keynote speech at the event Vice President Hubert Humphrey noted, “Through most of our early history, rivers were focal points in the lives of most Americans…as trails, as waterways for commerce, and sources of…power. This great project represents what can be done…It is the wisest investment that a people ever made and more of them can be made.”  

Since 1968 John Day Lock and Dam has served the nation and the region as one of the largest multi-purpose operating projects in the US, with critical missions in hydro-generation, flood risk management, fish passage, navigation, recreation, and environmental stewardship. 

While providing these great benefits to the people of the northwest, building John Day had serious consequences: tribal lands and sacred sites were inundated, and fish passage has been seriously affected. 

Throughout the last 50 years, the Portland District has worked with the tribes and other nations to coordinate and consult on projects to help mitigate these issues. As a result, the Corps is developing a juvenile bypass system to increase the survival rate of smolts heading downstream; redesigning fish ladders to make them lamprey friendly; investing $41 million in the north shore fish ladder to reduce the amount of time it takes fish to get through the ladder from seven days to about 20 minutes; and using passive integrated transponders to provide better data about fish passage and migratory patterns.

Additionally, dam operators are looking at new technology for turbines that reduces fish passage injury and mortality, while effectively maintaining power production. 

With extensive capital work and other improvements underway and planned for the next 15 years, John Day Lock and Dam is well positioned to continue to be a leader in regional support and is truly a testament to the ingenuity, audacity, vision, and dedication of all those who have worked on the project over the years from its inception to the present day.