Agencies Extend Winchester Dam’s Harmful Shutdown of North Umpqua Salmon and Steelhead Migration

Aug. 30, 2023


For information please contact:
Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch of Oregon, (541) 941-9450,
Kirk Blaine, Native Fish Society, (307) 299-7834,

Agencies Extend Winchester Dam’s Harmful Shutdown of North Umpqua Salmon and Steelhead Migration
New protests planned as images circulate of imperiled summer steelhead jumping futilely at dam.

Winchester, OR – Late last week, river advocates learned that state and federal natural resources agencies granted Winchester Water Control District (WWCD) a three-day extension on top of a three-week long salmon and steelhead upstream passage shutdown at Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River near Roseburg. The extension allows the sloppy, penny-pinching, and behind-schedule repair effort at the structure to continue to block native fish trapped in the potentially lethal warm water below the dam from moving to colder water upstream until midnight on August 31st. Agencies granted the extension even after river advocates reported two separate pollution spills at the site in just the four days leading up to the extension decision, and reported the extensive in-water use of vehicle tire mats potentially containing and shedding a toxic chemical lethal to salmon and steelhead.

The extension comes in the wake of a massive kill of the river’s Pacific lamprey due to the failure of WWCD to meet state and federal requirements for rescuing aquatic life stranded during the repairs, as well as a record heat wave that scorched the region and increased the risk of yet another kill among the fish trapped below the dam.

Agencies originally approved the fish ladder closure at Winchester Dam from Aug. 7th to 28th to allow reservoir drawdown and structural repairs at the 450-foot wide, 17-foot tall, 130-year-old wood, steel, and concrete Winchester Dam, an artificial barrier maintained solely to provide a private water ski lake for approximately 110 landowners surrounding the reservoir. The move also closed off access to migratory fish seeking 160 miles of high quality salmon and steelhead habitat upstream.

Prior to the repairs, river advocates formally petitioned to overturn the approval, contending the nearly month long fish passage interruption could not be justified, was not in the public interest, and would inflict needless additional stress, loss of reproductive capacity, and mortality on already dangerously low North Umpqua salmon and steelhead runs. Advocates also warned agencies that if WWCD received permission for the harmful three-week blockage, a request for an even more harmful extension was inevitable, because the proposed repair plan was unrealistic even for an experienced dam repair contractor, and WWCD had hired a contractor with no dam repair experience. For this and other reasons, river advocates asked the agencies to use their existing authorities to require a common dam repair alternative which allowed access for repair but did not stop upstream salmon and steelhead migration.

These petitions were ignored.

Under the extension, all in-water work must be completed and the fish ladder must be operational again by Aug. 31st. Agencies also gave WWCD until Sept. 4th to remove a “surprise” temporary bridge built into the river bed to access the downstream dam face. This bridge and associated access road were not disclosed in WWCD’s permit applications. The access road to the dam face, over standing and flowing water, was made in part with rubber tire material which may be shedding a toxic chemical called 6PPD-q that increases risk of a salmon and steelhead kill.

“After documenting the devastating results of the last three weeks of repair, all while knowing our resource agencies had the power to prevent this but chose not to, the best I can say is I am glad the agencies did not grant the full one-week extension requested by the dam owners,” said Kirk Blaine, Steamboaters President and Southern Oregon Coordinator for Native Fish Society.

Advocates have also learned that WWCD will not be repairing the undermined south abutment of the dam this year. WWCD’s previous repair in this location in 2018 failed within months, and came at the cost of a major pollution spill and fish kill. River flow through this hole in the main migration corridor will continue to pull in young fish moving downstream, and falsely attract salmon and steelhead traveling up river. At certain river flows, a whirlpool can be seen above this hole, and upwelling just downstream.

Winchester Dam is a derelict former hydropower facility and one of the state’s highest priorities for fish passage correction. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), the dam blocks or impedes access to 160 miles of high quality habitat for native fish – even when the fish ladder is in operation.

River advocates from a coalition of fishing, conservation, and whitewater groups have been working for years to raise alarm bells with government officials over the Winchester Water Control District’s chronic non-compliance with state and federal repair permitting, engineering, water quality and dam safety requirements, as well as their disregard for protections for fish and wildlife despite the essential habitat importance of the North Umpqua for salmon and steelhead.

River advocates will attend a protest at the dam beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 30th, and will be available to reporters for comment and to provide photos and video.

Link to images and video of imperiled salmon and steelhead futilely attempting to pass Winchester Dam since August 28th:

Comprehensive dam repair images folder:

River Advocates Petition to ODFW:

Public Records/Agency Notes from Past Winchester Dam repairs:

Winchester Dam Repair Permits

ODFW Fish Passage Authorization:

DEQ 401 permit:

NOAA Biological Opinion:

Army Corps permit:

Revised WWCD removal-fill application (last one before Corps and DEQ issued permits):