A diversion dam blocking fish passage up the Umatilla River between Echo and Stanfield could be removed by 2016, while still maintaining irrigation rights established 117 years ago.

The Umatilla Basin Watershed Council is proposing a multi-phase project that would not only take out the troublesome Dillon Dam -- a year-round barrier for native salmon and steelhead -- but reroute water for irrigation from another existing dam about two miles upstream.

Dillon Dam serves three water rights in the area, primarily at Double M Ranch, for a total of 1,821 irrigated acres. The plan is to divert their water instead from the Westland Irrigation Dam, and install an 11,000-foot pipeline out of Westland Canal feeding back into the Dillon Canal.

Once that phase is completed, then crews can focus on the actual removal of Dillon Dam and restoration of fish habitat. The eight-foot-high concrete structure serves no other purpose on the river.

All together, the project is expected to cost about $960,000. Greg Silbernagel, executive director of the watershed council, said the benefits will create a win-win situation for local agriculture and the environment.

"It's going to be less maintenance (for producers)," Silbernagel said. "We'll also see increased survival and fish numbers in the Umatilla River."

There are fish and lamprey ladders at Dillon Dam, but they are often inaccessible due to low flows in the summertime or gravel bars deposited by high, sweeping flows earlier in the season. Recent flooding on the river left a solid island of rocks blocking entrance into the ladder, as well as plugging the irrigation headgate.

When that happens, it is up to producers with the Dillon Irrigation Company to go in with loaders and clear the mess. The work usually takes 10-12 hours to finish, said Mike Taylor, owner and operator of the Double M Ranch.

A third-generation rancher, Taylor depends on irrigation water from the Dillon Dam to grow hay, corn and barley for his cattle operation. The Double M Ranch supports 1,300 cows just outside Echo.

Taylor is supportive of the watershed council's proposal as both a cattleman and a fisherman, he said. Westland has the capacity to serve their water rights, he added, so there shouldn't be any issue there.

"Most people here understand the fish passage issue, and it will only help to get that dam out of there," Taylor said.

The watershed council began in 2011 working on a plan to remove the Dillon Dam, meeting with producers and stakeholders. The group is now waiting on approval from the Oregon Water Resources Department to approve transfer of the Dillon water rights to Westland before moving forward with final design of the pipeline.

Funding for the removal is expected to be raised through the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and other federal partners. Gary James, fisheries program manager with the Tribes, said the project would further restore salmon runs that were once wiped out in the basin.

"It's certainly in our interest if we can consolidate canals and reduce the diversion dams to accommodate irrigation and fish," James said. "When there's a problem at a dam, we'll at least see a delayed (fish) migration. Obviously, when it takes them a lot longer, the wear-and-tear takes its toll."

Staff with the state Watershed Enhancement Board announced March 21 they recommended approval for $50,000 toward engineering the project. The board is expected to make a decision by April 30.

Pipeline construction could begin in winter, and finish by summer 2015, Silbernagel said.

"Everybody seems on board," he said. "We decided this is what we were going to do, and it's been clear sailing ever since."

Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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