Critics Argue Repairs on Oregon Dam Don’t Go Far Enough to Protect Salmon

By Alanna Mayham  |  Aug. 8, 2023  |  Courthouse News Service

A nonprofit says fish won’t be able to access their preferred habitats because of the repairs. Some claim the dam needs to go.

The Winchester Dam on Oregon’s North Umpqua River closed for three weeks on Monday for repairs and reservoir drawdown in an act that would have appeased federal plaintiffs who sued the dam’s owners — if they hadn’t chosen the “cheapest dam repair method” over “other well-established” options.

The most recent drama is just part of the Winchester Dam’s ongoing litigation, led by WaterWatch of Oregon, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring waterways for recreation and wildlife. The dam itself, located near Roseburg, does not produce energy and hasn’t since the 1960s. Instead, the dam’s sole purpose is to create a private flatwater reservoir for the homeowners behind the dam, known as the Winchester Water Control District.

In 2022, WaterWatch sued the district for causing “take” of threatened Oregon coast coho salmon since the dam’s fish ladder blocked access to spawning habitat and falsely attracted fish to areas of the dam with leaks. But the lawsuit’s accusations are the tip of the iceberg for WaterWatch, which released a statement on Thursday condemning the repairs, claiming the district is using methods that will harm fish by releasing stored sediment downstream, adding more concrete and filling embarkment holes with hydrophobic polyurethane foam.

“The release of stored water downstream on Aug. 7 will likely attract native migratory fish towards the dam just after the ladder closes, confining them for weeks to the warm water below the dam, with no cold water refugia nearby,” wrote Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch’s Southern Oregon program director, in the announcement.

In addition, McCarthy wrote, the reservoir’s refill in late August will reduce river flows downstream during the driest time of year, likely injuring river water rights intended to protect fish.

On July 28, Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife closed all angling on the river and its tributaries until the end of November due to low numbers of returning wild summer steelhead. According to the department’s announcement, its biologists predict the run will not meet the 1,200 wild fish critical abundance level, “the point where conserving the population could be in jeopardy if a downward trend continues.”

Meanwhile, McCarthy claims department officials refused WaterWatch’s requests to require the district to conduct less harmful repairs for maintaining upstream fish migration. However, the department is not solely responsible for greenlighting repairs, which also require a permit from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, a certification from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and a biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

On June 30, the DEQ withdrew its certification for repairs in response to WaterWatch’s petition, which McCarthy says highlighted how the district failed to disclose that it would release sediment onto critical salmon habitat.

DEQ representative Dylan Darling explained that the department reviewed plans under the Clean Water Act’s 401 certification program to “ensure protections are in place for water quality.” The DEQ reinstated the district’s permit 17 days later, a move McCarthy said is part of a larger “government failure” because the agency “messed up the withdrawal” by not providing a 30-day notice. Darling said the reinstatement arrived after the district revised and resubmitted its application.

Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife also responded to WaterWatch’s accusations. In an email on Friday, the department acknowledged that the dam has false attractant flows for migrating fish and needs structural integrity testing per Oregon Water Resources Department requirements. To fix and test the dam, the district must temporarily remove water from the area behind the dam, closing the fish ladder.

“Although some adult summer steelhead and possibly coho salmon may be attempting to migrate above Winchester Dam during this work window, based on historic run timing data (including a more focused look from 2015-2021 for coho and steelhead) ODFW has chosen the period which will least impact these populations,” the department’s email said.

Additionally, the department noted that its angling closure is intended to protect steelhead that have already migrated above the dam from their prior peak run.

The river’s lampreys, however, may suffer.

“There are likely high numbers of juvenile Pacific lamprey in the substrate upstream of the reservoir, which will be exposed when the dam is dewatered and water levels drop,” the email said. “Per the terms of their fish salvage authorization (issued in conjunction with the fish passage permit), dam owners are responsible for salvaging any Pacific lamprey, and other fish, and getting them back into the river as soon as possible to minimize mortality.”

The repairs will also lead to activities that “adversely affect” migratory fish, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s biological opinion on July 20.

“We considered whether or not the proposed action would cause any other activities and determined that it would perpetuate activities that would cause adverse effects on OC coho salmon and their designated critical habitat for an undetermined amount of time beyond the life of the Winchester Dam as it exists today,” read the opinion.

Nonetheless, the agency decided such activities would not jeopardize the species as a whole.

“Despite the numerous false and misleading public statements made by groups like WaterWatch, the Winchester Dam is incredibly safe for both native salmonid species and for the public,” wrote the district’s president, Ryan Beckley, on Sunday, adding that the dam is an invaluable resource to agencies for counting migratory salmon.

“Another favorite topic of the WaterWatch group is that the fish ladder does not meet the current NMFS design standards,” wrote Beckley. “While this is technically accurate, it completely ignores some very important facts, specifically that NMFS standards were not developed for migratory salmonid species, but instead were developed to literally cover all fish species across the country.”

Beckley said that the dam helps keep out invasive smallmouth bass, a predator of salmonids.

“While groups like WaterWatch regularly label the Winchester Dam as a ‘prolific fish killer,’ there simply is no evidence to support the claim,” Beckley wrote, adding that if the dam killed fish, thousands of people would let the district know.

Yet one observer of Monday’s dam repairs asserted that because the river is a world-class fishing destination, the dam has to go.

Robert Hoehne, an avid fisherman and active member of the Native Fish Society, explained that many people in the Winchester, Oregon, community have become more educated on issues surrounding the dam, such as that it is considered hazardous by the state. What bothers him the most, he said, is that fish struggle to cross the ladder and that the dam has false attractants, leading fish to run up against its face.

Some of the fish, he added, are no longer coming back.

“A lot of dams are coming out, and they are dams that are producing electricity. They’re doing flood control. They have things to do with irrigation. This dam doesn’t have any of those,” said Hoehne. “It’s a lake for these people to have their jet boats and their jet skis and so forth. And so, it has a lot less worth and it’s doing a lot of damage.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 8, 2023, edition of Courthouse News Service.