McKay Dam Saves Projects
BUILT IN NICK OF TIME
Supplied Summer Water for Stanfield and Westland Districts. From Elmer Dodd Scrapbook, Hermiston Herald, circa 1948
The McKay dam, located four miles south of Pendleton storing 72,000 acre feet of water, and costing two and a quarter million dollars and completed in 1927, is the greatest resource yet developed for the reclamation of the arid lands of Umatilla and Morrow counties.
Its authorization came at a critical time in national irrigation, and had it been delayed a year would not have been there. To its construction may be attributed the restoration of the Stanfield and Westland projects. Other benefits from that national investment are yet to be extended and recorded.
The urge for he McKay dam came soon after a few important events. The scope of the original West Extension had been restricted. The Furnish dam, built in 1909, was filling up with flood water, silt from the waterfields above. The Westland Irrigation company was having great difficulty in securing necessary storage. Both these projects were headed for the rocks of failure without a summer storage water supply.
The theory that water from the river and additional flood water supply from the natural channel would raise crops on most of the land had been exploded. The farmers of Butter Creek and Umatilla Meadows, who had heavy soils and a subsoil water table could continue to do that. In early days all up lands, with lighter soils and more drainage, had been found to require summer water to produce sufficient results to justify reclamation.
The subject was discussed in an unorganized way for a year or two as the facts became more and more apparent. It finally came before the Hermiston Commercial club in 1917, and for six months was nurtured there. Then what was known as the Umatilla River Irrigation League was formed. Its slogan was "All the Water for All the Land." Its field of operations was confined to the lower water shed of the Umatilla river. Its officers were E.P. Dodd president; R.A. Holte, secretary, and J.T. Hinkle, attorney. The executive board was: H.N. Burgess, G.M. rice, Dan Smythe, E.P. Mashall and J.R. Raley of Pendleton; Frank Spinning, A.B. Thomson, O.D. Teel, R.B. Stanfield and J.C. Hoskins, Echo; J.G. Pearson, J.M. Kyle, M.C. Barfager and R.A. Holte of Stanfield; E P. Dodd, W.J. Warner, F.B. Swayze and C.S. McNaught of Hermiston; J.W. Mesner, J.B. Saylor, Thos. Richards and J. Humfeldt of Butter Creek; D.R. Brownell and Ben Spinning of Umatilla; W.R. Walpole and J.G. Camp of Irrigon; J.C. Ballenger and S.H. Boardman of Boardman.
Public meetings were held in all the above places and much enthusiasm was aroused. A constitution was adopted, funds were raised and a harmonious and well organized campaign was carried forward. The territory had its back to the wall and its fighting blood was strong.
The reclamation (local and national) engineers were consulted and temporary surveys were made, for storage sites. Several surveys made in the foothills and mountains along the river above Pendleton and on Meacham creek, showed impossible sites. The McKay construction was also appraised and found to be costly, according to the per acre storage costs, then usually approved. The problem was a difficult one but the demands of the citizens persisted.
H.D. Newell was the government project engineer of the Umatilla project, and lent a friendly ear. The officers at the association held frequent consultations with him and the strength of the movement grew. A.P. Davis was then director of the U.S. Reclamation Service, and very friendly to the idea that all lands under the same watershed and in the same river development area should be reclaimed before new projects were undertaken. This bore fruit in our behalf.
In the early summer of 1919, the association raised funds in Portland, Pendleton, Stanfield, Hermiston and other towns and sent its president to Washington to present their case to the director of the service and Secretary lane, through the state's congressional delegation. This was at the time when President Wilson had just returned from Europe with his League of National treaty, and congress and the nation was astir with his war settlement program. It was difficult to get attention in other matters.
George Chamberlain was then a powerful senator and N.J. Sinnott, congressman of this district was at the height of his influence. These two men and Director A.P. Davis were invited to a dinner at the new Willard Hotel by the president of the association, and during that evening the whole matter was gone over completely. Further meetings were held with the director and finally Secretary Lane.
When they were all convinced that the program was legitimate and feasible and that no special interests were to be served, these men arrived at a favorable conclusion, and Secretary Lane, in collaboration with Director Davis, directed that an engineer be sent at once to complete the survey.
At that time soldiers were returning home and what to do for the veterans was a growing problem. Secretary Lane ahd addressed a letter to the president asking for funds to aid in preparing land and homes on irrigated projects for soldiers and Congressmen Sinnott had a bill before congress asking for $1,000,000,000 for retention of irrigated lands to meet the same problem.
These facts were stressed and entered into the favorable decision of the federal officials for the McKay dam. It has shown that under gravity of the Umatilla flow, 100,000 acres of land were yet unclaimed. The run-off of McKay creek had been measured for 13 years. With a diversion canal from Birch Creek, the supply for filling McKay reservoir was considered plentiful.
It might be added in passing that when the McKay dam was about half completed, an upheaval took place in the administration of the U.S. Reclamation Service. Dr. Elwood Mead was appointed director by President Wilson, and his ideas were quite contrary to those of previous directors, especially to those of A.P. Davis. Dr. Mead considered for a time of discontinuing the work of the McKay, but was prevailed upon to complete it by members of the Oregon delegation.
It is, therefor, safe to say, that if the McKay dam had not been put over when it was; had not the friends of this part of Umatilla and Morrow counties worked their very heads off, so to speak, the McKay dam would not have been built.
Had the McKay dam not been built it would not require a prophet to picture what would be the condition of the Stanfield and Westland projects and also the Hermiston district.
The increase of taxable wealth and improvements in town and country would still be lingering in the lay of desert nature. It is an imperishable resource of county and state, and while the Reclamation Bureau may never be fully reimbursed for the investment, it is one of those public works that will return final dividends in taxes and indirect benefits for all or more than its cost.