John Day: The Fishkiller
It is apparent that despite the protests of the combined fishery groups, some type of dam is to be built at this site. Assuming this, our position is that one of minimum height should be erected and all flood control features be deleted from the project in order to minimize potential fish losses that will mount as the height of the dam increases. We also urge that if this dam is to be constructed, it should be built above the mouth of the John Day in order that this river may be left as another means of partially minimizing the fish losses that will occur. Washington Fish Commission, circa 1950s
Everything about John Day Dam was big. In 1968, its 113-foot-high single lift navigation lock was the highest of any in the world, and it was the second largest hydroelectric producer. The dam required over a million cubic feet of concrete for the power plant area, 23 million pounds of gate guides, trash racks, and bulkheads. Even the blueprints measured in tons, weighing 3,847 pounds. The ten-year effort to build the dam won a "First Place Award for Engineering Design" in 1969. Ultimately, John Day would have 20 generators and produce over 3 million killowatts of power, more than any dam on the Columbia.
Big dams have large consequences, and John Day was no exception. The authorizing act for the dam recognized the potential loss of spawning grounds for fall chinook salmon and acknowledged the project responsibility to mitigate for the loss. Officials installed fish ladders, but when the gates of the dam closed in April 1968, the fish passage facility was not yet operational. In July the Oregon Fish Commission reported that 40% of the summer Chinook run was lost somewhere in the John Day Pool (Lake Umatilla) and part of the summer steelhead were completely wiped out. More than 31,000 fish didn't make it to their spawning grounds that spring. When vice-president Hubert Humphrey dedicated the dam on September 28, 1968, it already had a long-lasting nickname -"The Fishkiller."