Court Hearing in Winchester Dam Water Storage Case

Feb. 16, 2024


For information, please contact:
Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch of Oregon, jim@waterwatch.orgWHO:  Winchester Water Control District v. Oregon Water Resources Department, Dwight French (Case No. 23CV33445)
WHAT:  Hearing on Oregon Water Resources Department Motion to Dismiss
WHEN:  Friday, February 16, 2024
WHERE:  Marion County Circuit Court, Salem, Oregon

Documents relevant to the hearing are available here.The outcome of a court hearing today could have a significant impact on the fate of the aged Winchester Dam near Roseburg, and on the North Umpqua River’s struggling salmon and steelhead populations.

The Winchester Water Control District (WWCD), owners of the fish-killing Winchester Dam, are again trying to sidestep rules and avoid the normal costs of dam ownership at the expense of salmon, steelhead, and all those who love and depend on the North Umpqua River.

The events leading up to today’s hearing began around this time last year, when state regulators found the dam reservoir is storing 91 acre-feet more water than allowed under the owners’ registered water storage claim. This amount of water translates into approximately 1.1 feet of dam reservoir elevation.

The state then asked the dam owners in a letter to choose between two available options to come into compliance. Instead of following the state’s direction, dam owners responded with a lawsuit last summer, asking a court to overturn the straightforward application of state water law and carve out a special exemption from the rules for Winchester Dam owners.

Also at stake in this case is whether Winchester Dam owners will be required to bring their outdated, poorly maintained fish ladder up to current fish passage standards. This is because available paths to compliance under state water law in this unlawful water storage matter will almost certainly trigger requirements under other state laws to update the dam’s fish ladder to provide better fish access to the 160 miles of high-quality salmon and steelhead habitat above the dam. Such a ladder update could cost the dam owners upwards of tens of millions of dollars.

This winter, Oregon Water Resources Department (WRD) filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit by the dam owners, and a hearing on the motion to dismiss will take place this afternoon at 2 p.m. at Marion County Circuit Court in Salem.

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 habitat for native fish. River advocates from a coalition of fishing, conservation, and whitewater groups have been working for years to remove the dam, while raising 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.

Coalition member WaterWatch of Oregon has made a standing offer to remove Winchester Dam at little to no cost to the dam owners. This past summer, disastrous repairs at Winchester Dam triggered a massive fish kill, pollution spills, widespread public outcry, an Oregon State Senate inquiry — and soon after — tens of millions in state fines.

Photo of the North Umpqua River by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior