One of the things I’ve wanted to do since I arrived in Oregon a little more than a year ago has been to take a tour of McNary Dam.

Thanks to the very nice people from the Army Corps of Engineers’ Walla Walla public affairs office, Herald reporter Holly Dillemuth and I had the chance to do exactly that earlier this week.

I’m not usually one to use big words, but ... well, wow.

An amazing place, some amazing folks keeping it running smoothly and some staggering numbers. For instance:

• Those barges you see headed up and down the river? Each one of those barges carries freight equal to that moved by 538 semi-trailers. The average day sees six of those barges go through McNary. That means enough freight moves up and down the river every day to fill 3,228 semi-trailers (and a tiny fraction of the fuel is used to boot).

• The powerhouse has 14 generators, capable of producing roughly 1,000 megawatts. When running full capacity, McNary generates enough electricity to power approximately 686,000 homes.

• Each one of those generators weighs well in excess of 650 tons — and yes, they have to be repaired occasionally. As a matter of fact, two of them will undergo repairs this summer, a major undertaking, to say the least. Two cranes capable of lifting the generators will pull them up and the rotors will be rewound.

“Think of it as kind of a bigger version of the rotor in an electric drill or your vacuum cleaner,” said operations manager Dave Coleman.

Yep. Just slightly bigger.

• In 2008, more than 2.4 million juvenile salmon and steelhead were collected at McNary’s juvenile fish facility. About 2 million were bypassed back into the river and about 400,000 were transported past Bonneville Dam.

Brand new this year, by the way, is a new juvenile fish “outfall” just below the dam that should significantly decrease the mortality rate of the young salmon. Instead of being transported through a pipe that ended up in an eddy near the dam, they’ll get a ride through a newly constructed pipe that stretches about a half mile downstream, then another quarter of a mile into the middle of the river.

There, scientists say, the little guys won’t be such easy prey for birds and predatory fish, and the survival rate should increase. (There will even be strategically placed “water cannons” at the end of the pipe to discourage opportunistic birds.)

Yes, fish are a very important part of the entire equation. So, obviously, is power — and sometimes the two don’t add up nicely. But spend even a little time finding out what happens and how the Corps tries to accommodate all the factions involved, and you can’t help but be impressed.

Their efforts seem to be paying off. According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s latest reports, forecasts this year for chinook, steelhead and sockeye predict numbers far ahead of the 10-year average, with some runs predicted to be the best in more than 30 years.

Those are nice numbers to see.

In case you haven’t noticed, change is on the horizon at City Hall — and not just with the elected officials.

Earlier this month, assistant city manager Ray Jones stepped down. Earlier this week, City Manager Ed Brookshier informed the City Council that finance director Robert Irby will be retiring later this year, most likely in September.

Both of those positions were part-time spots, with the salaries of both totaling about $100,000.

Their replacements will be a little more expensive. If the estimated pay for both hits the high end, the total for the two new positions will be in the neighborhood of $170,000.

Speaking of change at City Hall — and elsewhere on the political front — the schedule for the April 19 debates at Hermiston High School has been set.

The candidates for county commissioner will take the stage at 6:30 p.m., followed by Senate District 29 candidates at 7:30 p.m. and Hermiston mayoral candidates at 8:30 p.m.

Hope to see you there — but if you can’t make it, we’ll be providing coverage via the Internet.

Another event you’ll be hearing plenty about in the coming weeks and months is Umatilla’s 150th birthday celebration, set for June 22-24.

The little town on the Columbia is understandably proud of its heritage (and still hasn’t forgotten that it was once the county seat before Pendleton grabbed the designation in a subsequent election).

If you’re interested in taking part, the Landing Days committee will be meeting April 4 at Umatilla City Hall. For more information, call 541-922-4825 or e-mail karen@umatillachamber.net.

On the topic of small towns, word of one of the region’s best-kept secrets seems to be getting out.

Echo recently played host to Carmen Spencer, a deputy secretary of the U.S. Army who was in town for the Umatilla Chemical Depot’s End of Operation’s Ceremony.

Spencer was treated to a multi-course gourmet meal by Challis Buck at the H&P Cafe, a tour of the area and a stop at Sno Road Winery. He was obviously impressed, noting in an email: “The hospitality, generosity and graciousness of the people of Echo was unsurpassed and the dinner prepared by Challis will be most memorable.”

He also said he would be looking forward to receiving the wine he ordered from Sno Road.

Also on the horizon is the Hermiston ArtWalk, set May 5 on Main Street.

The event is expanding this year to include dance demonstrations, artist demos, live music and food. Also planned is a “scavenger hunt” that will encourage folks to visit all the displays and stores.

And finally, we hope you are enjoying your morning Herald on Wednesday. Our thinking is that it provides more up-to-date news to you earlier in the day. So far, we’ve had good feedback, and we’d love to hear what you think.

Know of something we need to be reporting? A piece of news you’d like to see in the Herald? Drop me a note at nwoelk@hermistonherald.com or call me at 541-564-4533.

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