The Derelict Dam that needs to go
Now that the dust has settled from the disastrous repairs at Winchester Dam, I wanted to give an update on what happened and where conservation advocates go from here. I was at the dam site throughout the construction and reported multiple violations to state and federal agencies. Native Fish Society and river advocates will continue to apply pressure, ensuring the rule of law is followed and we remove this deadbeat dam for the future of the North Umpqua River.
On the night of August 7, 2023, the Winchester Water Control District initiated the opening of gates to drain the reservoir pool above Winchester Dam, and this marked the beginning of a series of disasters.
The following morning, Native Fish Society staff and other river advocates were on-site. They observed a distressing scene with thousands of dead and dying lamprey near the only public boat ramp on the reservoir pool. Throughout the day, they diligently reported multiple permit violations to various agencies in an effort to ensure compliance. Over the next three weeks, numerous complaints were filed with agencies such as ODFW, Oregon DEQ, the Army Corps of Engineers, and NOAA Fisheries.
As the project's initial deadline of August 28th neared, TerraFirma Foundation Systems continued their work. It was during this time that River Advocates discovered Winchester Water Control District had requested an extension to the Fish Passage Authorization, which would allow them to obstruct fish passage for a longer duration. ODFW and other regulatory agencies granted an extension, pushing the deadline to August 31, 2023.
Unfortunately, this second deadline was also missed, and another extension was sought and granted by ODFW and other regulatory agencies, extending the project deadline until September 6, 2023. In response, ODFW issued a letter to Winchester Water Control District outlining additional terms and conditions for this extension. This letter, which was made public, specified that the Winchester Water Control District was obligated to provide fish passage at Winchester Dam from August 31 to September 6.
From our observations and the content of the letter from ODFW to the district, it appears that Winchester Water Control District failed to provide any fish passage throughout the entire project. The exact scope of work completed during the project remains unclear.
Throughout the project's duration, hundreds of individuals wrote to their elected officials and state agencies, urging them to investigate and, if violations were substantiated, to enforce the penalties to the fullest extent possible.
Claims and Fines
The public's outcry, requesting the support of elected officials, was heard. On September 27, Senator Golden, who serves as the Chairman of the Senate Interim Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire, hosted a hearing requesting a report from ODFW, Oregon DEQ, and the Oregon Water Resources Department. During this hearing, ODFW acknowledged a significant fish kill involving hundreds of thousands of Pacific Lamprey. Senators Golden and Prosanski were persistent, asking the agencies for a timely report outlining the next steps, with the intent of fostering transparency and sharing this information with the public.
On October 6, 2023, ODFW filed a substantial claim of $27.6 million in the Douglas County Circuit Court, stemming from the unlawful killing of fish during the Winchester Dam Repair Project. This claim represents one of the largest ever issued in the state's history.
In addition to ODFW's actions on October 6, the Oregon DEQ issued a pre-enforcement notice for multiple Class I violations. This notice was directed to Mr. Ryan Beckley and the Winchester Water Control District.
Shortly thereafter, on October 26, 2023, DEQ issued two enforcement orders against the Winchester Water Control District. The first order amounted to $106,778 and was for violating at least ten conditions of the 401 water quality certification that had been granted just days before the project commenced. The second enforcement order was for $27,600 due to the pollution of state waters from wet concrete and using truck tires as a road base.
NFS is pleased with the proactive measures taken by state agencies to hold the Winchester Water Control District accountable for their harmful actions. This level of accountability is the highest that has been established in the history of Winchester Dam.
Despite the completion of the construction, the ongoing efforts to seek accountability are far from finished. The Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries have yet to take action on multiple complaints that were filed this summer. This lack of enforcement is not a new issue; both agencies failed to act previously when the Winchester Water Control District caused pollution in the North Umpqua River, resulting in the death of hundreds of fish.
Furthermore, the recent repairs conducted this summer have failed to provide any substantial benefits to the fish in the North Umpqua. The fish ladder remains on the wrong side of the dam, the planned fixes for the false attraction holes were still visible when the reservoir pool was refilled, and it remains unclear whether the massive hole under the south abutment has been adequately addressed. Additionally, juvenile fish continue to struggle in their downstream migration, with the risk of toppling over the face of the dam and ending up on the shallow bedrock just below.
During the reinforcement of the dam face, the Winchester Water Control District installed a horizontal steel I-beam on the front face of the dam. This I-beam is positioned just behind the water curtain cascading over the dam face and slightly above the base of the dam, at an ideal jumping height for salmon and steelhead.
It is evident that the Winchester Water Control District is neither capable nor willing to responsibly maintain and operate Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River. It's crucial to keep reminding your elected officials of the harm this dam inflicts on the fish and wildlife in our state.
The Native Fish Society and other river advocates will seek your assistance in urging federal support for the enforcement of the disastrous repairs conducted earlier this summer. We encourage everyone to continue spreading the word about the adverse impacts this dam has on the fish population in the North Umpqua River. Please take the initiative to write to your elected officials, reach out to fisheries managers, and advocate for the removal of Winchester Dam. As we have stated multiple times before, conservation advocates have offered to remove this deadbeat dam for little to no cost at all to the owners. That offer will stand until the day that dam is gone.
If you have any questions about this work or any other work in Southern Oregon, please email the Southern Oregon Coordinator, Kirk Blaine, firstname.lastname@example.org today.