As high water closes off campsites, officials discuss how to provide cushion for Owyhee Reservoir nearing capacity

Water shoots out the front of Owyhee Dam into the river below in this photo taken in March 2017 during a flyover of the Owyhee Basin.

OWYHEE DAM – Although mudslides near the Owyhee Dam on Wednesday didn’t impact residents, there were about 80 recreationists in the area who were unable to leave campsites on Wednesday and part of Thursday, as the only paved road was impassable.

Malheur County Sheriff’s Lt. Rich Harriman who was in charge of getting the roads cleared, said the dirt road to Camp Hycliff, where about 40 campers were staying, also suffered mudslides.

Though more rain was expected Thursday night, Harriman said both roads were finally cleared and open in the late afternoon, and he hadn’t heard of any issues overnight.

The campers in the state park were fortunate, however, as Harriman said there happened to be two park rangers who got caught with them on that side, who had an operational phone.

The rangers went between parks, he said, “verifying if anyone had medical issues because they couldn’t leave when expected,” or whether they needed items such as fuel, food or water, if they didn’t have enough to be there an extra day.

“We would have been in a position to helicopter in,” Harriman, who is also the the head of Malheur County Emergency Management, said.

“But as it was, all were prepped for the long haul and they all stayed put,” he said.

Having the state park rangers there was also a benefit to Emergency Management, “because the rangers could provide emergency services for that area while they were cut off” and county crews could focus on clearing the roads.

A news release this morning from Oregon Parks and Recreation said park staff confirmed there were no injuries or medical issues among the campers.

When asked whether the mudslide occurred in an area where a burn scar was, Harriman said it was not.

“It was just the right amount of rain,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard of mud- or rockslides in that area to that extent.”

He said rocks sliding down onto the road are common, but this was the first act of nature to his knowledge that ever made the road impassible.

“It was the perfect storm, so to speak,” Harriman said, adding that with the conditions of the soil being saturated with more than an inch of rain, the ground “let go.”

Harriman said he hoped that enough mud slid out it won’t be an issue in the future.

The biggest concern ahead for now is that the road may be damaged as crews had to clear the mud away with a bulldozer, but that damage has not been assessed or estimated yet.

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