Tumalo Reservoir

Have you ever heard of Tumalo Reservoir?  It’s southwest of Sisters about 20 miles.  Do you know what Tumalo means?  Geographical name historian Lewis A. McArthur says the name came from the Klamath Indian word for wild plum: temolo. Or their word for ground fog: temola. Or from an original name of Tumallowa, meaning icy water. “Any of the above explanations might fit the facts, so there you are,” McArthur wrote.

view from Tumalo Reservoir

Currently, the Tumalo Reservoir area is a popular location for hiking, horseback riding, running, mountain biking and the occasional dirt bike rider.  The reservoir is owned by Tumalo Irrigation District and they do allow public access with a few guidelines, such as respect the area!  There are incredible views of the Cascade Mountains, endless trails and great footing for the horses, and some of the most beautiful sunsets in the area.  My favorite time to be at the reservoir is at dusk, when the light captures the amazing hues of the red dogwood and willows around the water’s edge.  The serenity and peacefulness is healing and one appreciates the natural beauty whenever we see the Bald or Golden eagles fly overhead.  It’s a magical place and a bit of a hidden gem.

The history and formation of the reservoir and surrounding flats is very interesting.

Tumalo was home to Central Oregon’s first irrigation project under the auspices of the Carey Act, a piece of 1894 legislation meant to encourage Western settlement and reclamation of arid lands. It allowed settlers to gain title to 160 acres of land if they agreed to irrigate 20 acres within 10 years. The act also encouraged the development of irrigation systems by private developers, who could make a profit by selling land with water rights to settlers.

The Carey Act and its subsequent investment in Central Oregon irrigation systems was crucial to the settlement of Central Oregon, but not all irrigation projects worked as planned.

The Tumalo Irrigation Project in 1904 promised to irrigate about 27,000 acres of land near Tumalo Creek, a tributary to the Deschutes. After the developers suffered nearly 10 years of financial, managerial and engineering disasters on the project, forcing some farmers to go bust, the state took over the irrigation system in 1913.

The state’s solution to the Tumalo project, which lacked enough water to irrigate all of the promised land, was to build a storage reservoir. Tumalo Reservoir was completed in 1915 but failed to hold water when giant sinkholes opened on its floor. The reservoir now holds about 5 percent of its capacity, and about a third of the original Tumalo land is actually irrigated today (the rest of the land includes a mix of undeveloped, dryland ranch and residential property). The project was possibly the most vexed Carey Act irrigation development in the nation, according to researchers.

There are still remnants of the dam on the north end of the flats with a beautiful canyon on the opposite side.  Makes one wonder about the original plans for the area and how it would be so different if it had been successful.  For those of us that use the area, we’re glad it didn’t work out!!

After spending a day riding or hiking around the area, we love to end our day at Three Creeks Brewery for a refreshing brew and then a relaxing massage at Shibui Spa or vice versa!  The perfect scenario is a relaxing final soak of the night and a restful sleep in a quaintly, luxurious cabin at FivePine Lodge.

Tricia Maxson – Events Director at FivePine Lodge