Court Hearing in Winchester Dam Water Storage Case

Feb. 16, 2024

The outcome of a hearing in Marion County Circuit Court in Salem could have a big impact on the fate of Winchester Dam, and by extension the North Umpqua River’s struggling salmon and steelhead populations, as a motion filed by the Oregon Water Resources Department (WRD) to dismiss an earlier water storage lawsuit by the owners of the Winchester Dam is being considered.

The story began last year when state regulators found the reservoir behind Winchester Dam to be storing 91 acre-feet more water than allowed under the dam owners’ registered water storage claim, resulting in an additional foot of water in the reservoir. The state asked the Winchester Water Control District (WWCD), which represents Winchester Dam owners, to choose between two available options to come into compliance. The dam owners, in turn, responded with a lawsuit to overturn the straightforward application of state water law, and carve out a special rules exemption for Winchester Dam owners.

If the WWCD is forced to come into compliance with their registered water storage claim, a secondary problem comes up for them as it would trigger requirements under other state laws to update Winchester Dam’s outdated, poorly maintained fish ladder to current fish passage standards, and provide better fish access to high-quality salmon and steelhead habitat above the dam. This could cost dam owners upwards of tens of millions of dollars.

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 native fish habitat. 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 agencies over the WWCD’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.

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

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