UMATILLA, Ore. - We've all seen it when driving down Interstate 82, crossing the bridge from Washington into Oregon. The spillway at McNary dam is a well-known site.
Most people know it is there but not everyone knows how it impacts the community.
Brandon Frazier is the park ranger at McNary Dam. He grew up in Hermiston and first visited the dam as a boy.
"I had a neighbor that was an electrician here when I was growing up. I asked him to take me out to the dam when I was really young," he recalls. "I remember the tour that I did when I was a kid that took me all the way down to the depths. I remember watching barges going through as a kid. I remember going to the powerhouse other times."
He moved away but eventually he was reeled back in.
"In all honesty, I never pictured coming back here but when the opportunity came up I had to jump at it," Frazier said.
"It's an outstanding job," added William Gersbach, chief of operations at McNary Dam. "As you work here longer you get to know the missions, you get to know the people, you get to know the region."
McNary Dam spans 7,365 feet across the Columbia River and employs people from all over the area. About 20 percent of the permanent workforces lives in Umatilla County.
The concrete walls have several purposes like serving as a navigation lock, a fish passage, and a powerhouse.
"At full capacity, it can supply a town as big as Seattle by itself," Frazier said.
According to Gersbach, there are 14 main generating units slowly turning inside the dam.
"One of the biggest revelations is that these generators are only spinning at 57.5 RPM. They are slowly turning compared to other generators," he said.
At full speed, they can power approximately 686,000 homes.
The construction of McNary Dam began in 1947 and the power units became operational ten years later.
It operates 365 days of the year. Many people visit the dam in awe.
"There are so many misconceptions of how this place operates," said Gersbach.
He said many students visit the dam throughout the school year.
"The young school grade children ask those revealing type questions that make you think "Wow, that really is the neat thing about this project'," said Gersbach.
The Pacific Salmon Visitor Information Center has several educational exhibits, fish tanks, a theater, and a juvenile fish facility. It is open 7-days a week from May to September, and Monday through Friday from October to April.
"I think it's awesome that there are big displays and it's not just something that we just look and then leave and it's a free activity to do," said Lisel Batdorf, Kennewick resident.
She and her family visited the dam to learn more about what it does for the community.
"It's just an important part of the area. If you live in this area or are visiting, it's important to know what the rivers give to the area."
McNary Dam also works with the the cities of Hermiston and Umatilla to hold public events throughout the year.
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