Conservation Groups Call for End to Aging Umpqua River Dam After Emergency Fish Salvage

By Alex Baumhardt  |  Sept. 18, 2023  |  Oregon Capital Chronicle

The 133-year-old Winchester Dam, which essentially provides a private lake for 100 “influential” people near Roseburg, has a history of environmental violations.

For two days in early August, a dozen staff from the natural resources department of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians walked along the banks of the north Umpqua River, grabbing small, eel-like fish that were squirming in the mud.

They were trying to save the young Pacific lamprey left exposed by a drained reservoir near Roseburg, the result of repairs on the deteriorating Winchester Dam.

The dam and the 1.7-mile-long reservoir behind it are owned by about 100 people who use it as their own private lake for recreation. It’s also a state and federally designated fish habitat and home to migratory native species, including steelhead, coho salmon and lamprey, a culturally significant food source for Cow Creek members.

The August repairs were the third major renovations at the 133-year-old dam in the last decade. And for the third time in a decade, the work was poorly executed and harmed aquatic species and habitat, according to state agencies and conservation groups.

The number of lamprey killed this August while the repairs were underway is still being determined by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, but Cow Creek officials estimate that tens of thousands of young lamprey died in 2013 when the reservoir was not properly drained. Repairs in 2018 contaminated fish habitat and the water supply of more than 37,000 people when liquid cement spilled into the river.

Now, a coalition of 20 environmental groups is asking the state to investigate the impact of the latest repairs and to decommission the dam. Doing so would reopen the stretch of river for the first time in more than a century. The dam’s owners, members of the Winchester Water Control District, have pushed back on such requests in the past.

The coalition is led by the non-profit WaterWatch of Oregon. Jim McCarthy, southern Oregon coordinator for the group, said the state has allowed a group of private citizens an inordinate amount of power over a shared resource.

“The folks that own the dam are extremely anti-regulatory, very wealthy and influential, and they’ve been able to mysteriously repair a 450-foot wide, 17-foot tall dam on a major river in the state of Oregon for years and years and years using amateur repair methods and without permits,” said McCarthy.

There is no plan to decommission the dam according to the Oregon Water Resources Department. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is determining whether any environmental laws were violated during recent repairs.

Ryan Beckley, president of the Winchester Water Control District and owner of the company contracted to undertake the latest repairs, said he could not comment while traveling in Europe.

Repairs Gone Wrong

The water district was permitted by state agencies to undertake repairs between Aug. 7 and 28, according to the state fish and wildlife agency. Cow Creek natural resources staff were called in by the state agency during the first week to help with an “emergency salvage” of lamprey. It was clear early on that the water district leaders had not properly planned for the number of lamprey that would be affected by draining the reservoir, they said.

“We are invested in this situation and what happens on the north Umpqua and Winchester Dam because of the lamprey and all of those species that are just so critical to Cow Creek lifeways,” said Lindsay Campman, a spokesperson for the tribe.

The Winchester Dam is not only in a critical lamprey habitat, but also it is within a state designated Essential Salmonid Habitat and a federally designated critical habitat for protected Oregon Coast coho salmon. These fish are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and their numbers have dropped from more than 20,000 to less than 2,000 during the last 20 years, according to the state fish and wildlife department.

The company undertaking the dam repairs, TerraFirma Foundation Systems, is owned by Beckley. He asked state agencies twice this summer for work permit extension as the repair schedule bled into early September and was beginning to impair the migration of native fish, according to state fish and wildlife officials.

The company, described on its website as an “industry leader in foundation repair, basement and crawl space waterproofing, wall stabilization and concrete repair,” does not list experience with dam construction.

In 2013 the Winchester Water Control District undertook repairs that involved draining some of the reservoir, but did not have a salvage crew to move lamprey to safe waters, according public records obtained by WaterWatch. Cow Creek officials estimate for every lamprey saved, 10 died.

The dam owners didn’t face any financial penalties, but in 2018, more repairs were undertaken and liquid cement was spilled into the river, compromising a key source of drinking water for the city of Roseburg and the Umpqua Basin Water Association. The Department of Environmental Quality fined Basco Logging, Inc., the construction company handling the repairs, $55,000, which was later reduced to about $20,000.

This article originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle on Sept. 18, 2023. Photo by Kirk Blaine.