Small Eastern Oregon town rushes to shore up riverbanks after heavy rains

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
June 16, 2022 1:01 a.m.

Two years after major flooding, Echo grapples with high water threatening homes

Echo city administrator David Slaght explains Tuesday how floods and high water has changed the Umatilla River and what public officials need to do fix it. Heavy rains caused the river to swell over the past several days, threatening homes in the small Eastern Oregon town south of Hermiston.

Echo city administrator David Slaght explains Tuesday how floods and high water has changed the Umatilla River and what public officials need to do fix it. Heavy rains caused the river to swell over the past several days, threatening homes in the small Eastern Oregon town south of Hermiston.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

The Umatilla River floods may have ended two years ago, but the Eastern Oregon communities that line the river are still feeling the effects.

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A bedroom community of about 600 people a few miles south of Hermiston, Echo took the brunt of heavy rain runoff from the nearby Blue Mountains over the past several days, causing the banks of the Umatilla River to swell to twice their normal size.

Echo city administrator David Slaght described it Tuesday as a high water event rather than a flood, but homes are still threatened by the rising waters.

On Monday, Echo secured $400,000 from the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners for emergency work to protect homes. Since then, contractors have hauled rocks to the riverbank to halt the encroaching river water.

Slaght said the worst is likely over, but the city still needs a long-term solution in a region that’s found itself more prone to flooding in recent years.

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“We want to relieve the pressure on this rock or this rock won’t last forever,” he said as he stood in front of the sediment-stained river. “If we don’t pull the current off, it’s a temporary fix. And we want it to be a permanent fix. And the only way to do that is to coach the river back and more into the center channel.”

Slaght said the turning point for Echo was the 2020 floods.

In February 2020, heavy rainfall combined with a rapidly melting snowpack led to significant flooding across Umatilla County, including Echo.

Even after the water receded, Slaght said the path of the river changed. The new shape of the river means a flooded Umatilla doesn’t just affect alfalfa fields or cattle pasture, but several homes.

Dennis Sather and his wife Gina have lived at their Echo home near the Umatilla for 26 years. After 2020, Sather watched as his home suddenly became riverfront property.

“Now I can throw a rock from my yard into the river easily,” he said.

The Sathers started considering their plans should the river reach their house, but were grateful that the city and county were able to shore up the river before it got to that point.

In a small town with a small budget, Slaght said his city needs cash to fund a permanent flood mitigation project along the river. He said he’s continuing talks with the federal government to get the project funded.

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