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'I told myself I'd never see the bottom of Haystack Reservoir, but I've seen it.' Leonard Lang

PMG PHOTO: TONY AHER - The North Unit Irrigation District completely drained the Haystack Reservoir to repair a faulty emergency gate. They hope to begin filling the reservoir this spring.

In the 38 years Leonard Lang has tended the dam at Haystack Reservoir, he's never seen it like this.

"I told myself I'd never see the bottom of Haystack Reservoir, but I've seen it," said Lang. "I feel sorry for all the fish that passed."

Lang remembers only one other time the district partially drained the reservoir, in order to inspect underwater equipment.

This year the North Unit Irrigation District drained the reservoir completely to repair an emergency gate.

Back in 1980, when Lang was 28 years old, he took over the responsibility of caring for the dam at Haystack and adjusting the gates during irrigation season. He'd get a call every night a 5 p.m. with instructions, then adjust the gate accordingly three times a day.PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS - Leonard Lang, who tended the dam at Haystack Reservoir for 38 years, stands beside a completely dry lake but for a dusting of snow.

"When we had the droughts, I had to go out at 2 a.m. to operate the gate up and down," recalls Lang. "I never had to go through a drought like this, thank God."

Lang retired in 2020 before the worst seasons of the current drought.

His almost four decades here were idyllic in some ways.

"Get up in the morning, go out the back door, and this is what you see." Lang speaks to his memories of his home beside a full reservoir, where he raised his two daughters. "We had a zoo. I raised cows, pigs, chicken, geese, ducks rabbits. Grandpa bought it for my daughters and I was stuck with it," Lang said shaking his head, yet grinning, giving mixed reviews to the joys of animal husbandry.

Over the years the reservoir offered recreation to tens of thousands of anglers, campers and boaters. Lang thinks most of them don't realize the critical function this reservoir serves for farmers in Jefferson County.

Lang says the Bureau of Reclamation built the reservoir in 1957 so growers wouldn't have to wait the three days it takes for water to reach their farms from Wickiup Reservoir near La Pine. Instead, the irrigation district stores water from Wickiup in Haystack so water is ready to flow to farmers as soon as they order it.

In all his years tending the dam, Lang has never had occasion to use the emergency gate, but he says having the gate operational is critical.

If the main gate fails, and the emergency gate doesn't work, Lang says water stays trapped in the reservoir, leaving pumping as the only option, an impractical option.

Bob Doyle and his wife Karen have been camp hosts at Haystack the past five years.

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS - Haystack Reservoir at capacity in April of this year.

"There's a lot of people that love this place," said Doyle. He said it was hard to see the lake drain dry. "It was disheartening because its gorgeous when there's water in the lake. Now it's just like a moon crater."

Doyle watched people, including Lang, search the lake bottom for treasure. They found fishing lures, of course, and anchors; motors, batteries, and perhaps the most startling find, two sturgeon skeletons, one 5-foot long, the other 6-foot.

Doyle and others speculate anglers caught the sturgeon on the Columbia and dropped them in the Haystack Reservoir.

The irrigation district also found an unexpected amount of silt on the reservoir bottom and in the stilling basin. "Enough for a small farm," said Gary Calhoun, who heads operations for NUID.

Crews will use this opportunity to clean out that silt and eradicate the milfoil that often infests lakes.

After the Bureau of Reclamation repairs the emergency gate, the unit expects to refill the reservoir, stock it with fish and have it ready for recreation and irrigation by spring.

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