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A mesmerizing sight: The ring gate spillway is open on the Owyhee Dam

Posted at 12:14 PM, Apr 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-12 14:14:10-04

ADRIAN, Oregon — The ring gate spillway more commonly referred to the "glory hole" only operates when Lake Owyhee is above 80 percent, right this reservoir that stretches for more than 50 miles is 94 percent full after a big winter in the Owyhee River Basin.

"The glory hole is impressive watching the water go over with that much pressure," said John Faw, who we ran into on top of the dam. "You know it is unique.”

People check out the ring gate spillway

The ring gate spillway doesn't run very often, this marks the fifth time in the last 31 years. The Owyhee Irrigation District opened it in 1993, 2006, 2011, and 2017, and it's open right now. The irrigation district operates and maintains this Bureau of Recreation dam.

The Owyhee Irrigation will open a gate on top of the dam from time to time for people to look into the abyss because when the ring gate spillway is operational people come to see it.

From a different angle

"This is amazing, I’ve lived in Idaho since 95 and I’ve always wanted to see it," said Cynthia Fairfax, who made the trip to this Oregon destination from Boise. "It’s kind of quiet which is kind of weird because I would have thought that it would be like super loud."

The ring gate spillway is the first of its kind ever built, I was only able to find two others like it in the country. The glory hole acts like a sink as water drains straight down for 309 to 321 feet. Managers can raise or lower it using differential valves, but when water it gets to the bottom it takes a 90-degree turn and bursts out at the bottom of the dam.

View from the bottom of the dam

"I grew up farming just down below here and this water is our lifeblood," said Faw. "It is what makes this desert bloom, it makes this country grow, and when you got a two-year supply of water that sure makes planning for next year easier."

When the reservoir is half-full water will typically last for an irrigation season, but when it is full farmers should be good for two summers.

John Faw

However, the other side of the coin means flooding and the National Weather Service issued a moderate flood warning for the Owyhee River below the dam this week. Friday morning the river dropped below the moderate level.

The dam and the ring gate spillway play a vital role in preventing flooding while trying to preserve as much water as possible. The dam also has an interesting history, people are not allowed on the dam, but an employee with the Owyhee Irrigation District escorted me around to get some shots.

Looking down from the top of Owyhee Dam

The Owyhee Dam was the largest dam in the world when construction finished in 1932. That didn't last long because it was used as a prototype to build the much larger Hoover Dam in 1936. John Faw knows the history well.

"This is why my family came here," said Faw. "My grandfather came to this country and helped finish pouring the concrete checks and head gates down below back in the late 20s and early 30s when this thing was done."

So John comes to see the ring gate spillway every time it's operation. He told us it makes his tummy go round and round, but he also says he has never left this area because he loves it so much.

"Yeah, it’s pretty cool there is a lot here and finding a place better than this I haven’t yet and what a resource we got," said Faw. "Not just for irrigation, but also for recreation."

The Owyhee River below the dam on Thursday

I talked with the Owyhee Irrigation District manager who says there's no telling how long the ring gate will operate because of how unpredictable this area is.

I have also been recreating out in the Owyhees this past week. I've noticed water flowing where it wasn't before, Jump Creek Falls running higher than I've ever seen and it's important to be safe out there. Obey road closed signs, don't drive through running water, and be wary of soft ground on dirt roads.