McNARY - After 50 years of holding back the waters, McNary Dam is still standing its ground and providing countless benefits to Eastern Oregon.

The 7,000-foot long concrete structure provides energy and transportation as part of the eight-dam Columbia River system.

"The hydropower it provides has virtually built the Northwest," said Port of Umatilla Director Kim Puzey. "The economic influence of this facility cannot be understated."

The ports enjoy the benefit of being able to move barges up and down the river system using the locks in the dams. Recreational vessels can also use the locks to navigate the river.

Gina Baltrusch, a public affairs specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers, said an estimated seven million tons of goods were moved up and down the river last year. Each dam, including McNary, influences every other dam, providing a safe and inexpensive way for cargo to move through the river channel, Puzey said.

"It's a system as a whole," said Port of Morrow Director Gary Neal. "Without McNary Dam you couldn't have a river system."

Since it went online 50 years ago, McNary Dam has provided roughly 307 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. The energy is administered through the Bonneville Power Administration, which monitors and regulates much of the power from the dams on the river.

Energy and shipping are not the only things the dam is providing. The lake formed by the dam, known as Wallula Lake, provides recreation for tens of thousands of swimmers, boaters and fishermen every year. The ensuing tourist trade has been a boon in both Umatilla and Hermiston, city officials say.

"In terms of importance to hotels and restaurants, there is a clear benefit," said Hermiston City Manager Ed Brookshire, adding, "It certainly has some benefit to the city as an employer."

McNary Dam employs roughly 120 people year-round. Baltrusch said there is a misconception that people who work on the dam are just Army imports who work for a few years and then leave. "That's not the case with civil workers, they live here, they retire here. They are vital members of the community," she said.

Nowhere is the dam's influence more tangible than in Umatilla. Much of the city's summer traffic is generated by the recreational area around the dam. Umatilla City Manager Larry Clucas said the positive impact McNary Dam has had on the community cannot be measured.

"Would Umatilla be where it is without the dam being there?" Clucas said. "It's 50 years of jobs. It's one of the biggest parts of our economy."

Will the dam see another 50 years? If that's what the people want, Baltrusch said.

"A lot of people think the Corps did this, but the people did this," Baltrusch said. "That's why being involved is so important. It's the people's voice."

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