Disastrous Dam Repair on North Umpqua Sparks Massive Fish Kill, Pollution Spills, State Senate Inquiry, and $27.6 Million Fine

By Jim McCarthy  |  Oct. 30, 2023  |  The Osprey

At least 550,000 juvenile Pacific lamprey were killed this summer due to the botched repair of Winchester Dam on Oregon’s North Umpqua River.

On October 6th, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) filed a $27.6 million claim for recovery of damages in the Douglas County Circuit Court against the Winchester Water Control District and its associated contractors TerraFirma Foundation Systems and DOWL Engineering for the preventable loss of at least 550,000 juvenile Pacific lamprey during this summer’s botched repairs to the District-owned Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River near Roseburg.

The filing represented one of the largest damages claims for illegal killing of wildlife in Oregon’s history, and seeks reparation for the loss of a valuable public resource, as well as the state’s costs to mount an emergency rescue operation for dying lamprey at the dam. Pacific lamprey are listed on ODFW’s Sensitive Species List and are culturally significant to Pacific Northwest tribes.

Also on October 6th, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a pre-enforcement notice to Winchester Dam’s owner’s for water quality violations associated with the summer 2023 repairs. DEQ’s Office of Compliance and Enforcement is expected to issue a final enforcement order in the next few weeks.

The state’s actions surprised some observers, and were seen as a credit to the region’s Native American tribes which have worked for years to raise awareness about the importance and value of Pacific lamprey, and to restore their populations in the Pacific Northwest. The developments were also hailed as a victory by members of a statewide grassroots coalition of fishing, conservation, and whitewater groups formed to end the ongoing harm caused by the 133-year-old Winchester Dam, and remove it. The coalition has 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, steelhead, and other aquatic life.

Previously, on September 27th, during testimony before state legislators regarding botched repairs at the derelict Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River near Roseburg, Shaun Clements, acting deputy director of ODFW, acknowledged that the private dam owners’ repairs this summer resulted in a massive kill of native Pacific lamprey, “on the order of hundreds of thousands of lamprey, and by statute that could result in significant financial damages.”

The statement came during a question and answer period following a presentation on the Winchester Dam repairs by ODFW, DEQ, and the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) to the Senate Interim Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire. Committee chair state Senator Jeff Golden (D–Ashland) and committee member Senator Floyd Prozanski (D–Springfield) grilled agency brass on the widespread public perception of the agencies’ indifference to reported serial violations of state law and regulation committed at the dam this summer and in previous years.

After the hearing, members of the coalition and public expressed appreciation to the Committee members and welcomed the increased scrutiny of the infamously outlaw Winchester Dam. Just a few months prior to the hearing, ODFW officials had declined to even answer river advocates’ formal request to use their authority to require a less harmful repair alternative maintaining reservoir levels and upstream fish migration — only weeks before collapsing summer steelhead numbers spurred ODFW to shut all angling in the North Umpqua from August through November.

The disintegrating, 17-foot-high, 133-year-old Winchester Dam is maintained solely to create a private waterski lake for surrounding landowners, but it kills, injures, or delays salmon and steelhead trying to access 160 miles of high quality habitat upstream. Impacted species include spring Chinook, fall Chinook, summer steelhead, winter steelhead, cutthroat trout, and Pacific Lamprey, as well as threatened Oregon Coast coho listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The hearing and record fine came in the wake of intense media scrutiny and public outcry generated in large part by a handful of individuals from WaterWatch, Native Fish Society, Umpqua Watersheds, The North Umpqua Foundation, and Steamboaters, who spent weeks in the heat and wildfire smoke documenting and reporting multiple apparent violations of state and federal laws during this summer’s repair efforts at Winchester Dam. These included possible violations of laws intended to protect fish, wildlife, aquatic habitat, drinking water supplies, and worker safety.

Starting August 7th, these river advocates witnessed one ecological disaster after another as the Winchester Water Control District commenced repairs proposed to be to the minimum extent necessary to address public safety issues at the dam. Sadly, their cheap-as-possible approach came with near-maximum environmental damage.

Observed repair impacts include:

  • A massive fish kill of Pacific lamprey as a result of the repair process, in which upwards of hundreds of thousands of fish died.
  • Mats made from old vehicle tires likely containing a compound lethal to salmon and steelhead placed in the river and driven over again and again with heavy equipment.
  • Blocked passage for native migratory fish, including imperiled, iconic summer steelhead. Fish were observed jumping again and again at the impassable dam.
  • Wet concrete dumped into the waters of the North Umpqua, likely changing the river’s pH level and harming or killing fish and degrading habitat downstream.

The reservoir drawdown method of repair, chosen as the cheapest dam repair method by dam owner Winchester Water Control District over other well-established and more fish-friendly dam repair options, dewatered vast areas of Pacific lamprey habitat while likely releasing stored sediment downstream onto state-designated Essential Salmonid Habitat/federally-designated critical Coho salmon habitat.

Meanwhile, the closure of the ladder created a migratory dead-end for imperiled summer steelhead, spring Chinook salmon, and other native species attempting to move upstream to the 160 miles of cold water habitat above the dam. The release of stored water downstream also likely attracted native migratory fish towards the dam just as the ladder closed, confining them for weeks to the warm water below the dam, with no cold water refugia nearby. Compounding this harm, the reservoir refill in early September temporarily reduced river flows downstream of the dam during the driest and hottest period of the year and injured North Umpqua instream water rights intended to protect salmon and steelhead.

On average, Winchester Dam repairs have occurred once every three years since the 1960s, but public records show no permits for repairs prior to 2023. State and federal natural resources agencies issued permits in 2023 after intense pressure from river advocates in the coalition, who asserted that their failure to require permits was irresponsible at best, and likely unlawful. Even so, the state and federal permitting agencies still largely failed to do their jobs in the lead up to the 2023 repairs. Concerns and irregularities that river advocates raised during the permitting process in the lead up to the 2023 repairs included but were not limited to:

  • The dam owners failed to disclose to regulators that during past unpermitted repairs, the release of stored reservoir water also released stored sediment downstream onto salmon habitat and into public drinking water supplies. State and federal permit approvals for the 2023 repair were given after the dam owners told regulators that the presence of invasive aquatic plants in the reservoir would prevent release of sediment, and additionally, that they would secure a 50′ x 100′ tarp to the reservoir bed with sandbags. The plants and tarp would be subject to the full force and flow of the river flowing through the dam’s two narrow water release gates (despite flying drones over the site several times, river advocates were unable to find evidence that a tarp was placed in the river as proposed before or during repairs).
  • State records show the dam owners have previously repaired the dam by installing large numbers of toxic pressure treated wood planks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Human Services recommend that treated wood not be used where it may come in direct or indirect contact with public drinking water. Winchester Dam is just 50 feet upstream from Roseburg’s public drinking water intake. Despite this, regulators did not require removal of any pressure treated wood from the structure. The 2023 repair plan called for drilling large numbers of holes into the dam’s pressure treated wood to secure a steel lattice.
  • Previous repairs used rock fill to repair the many cavities within the wooden central span of the dam. As a cost-saving method, the 2023 dam cavity repairs abandoned rock fill in favor of injections of chemical intensive polyurethane foam, a known source of microplastic pollution, just 50 feet upstream from Roseburg’s public drinking water intake.
  • The Winchester Dam owners were notified by state officials in a January 2023 letter that they were storing water in excess of their filed water right claim SW 398. The letter instructed the owners to come into compliance by lowering their reservoir pool by one-and-a-half feet, or to file for a new water right. The owners have disregarded the state’s instructions, and instead proposed a repair involving a reservoir refill that injured downstream water rights, including certificated instream rights intended to protect the North Umpqua’s invaluable fisheries, including Oregon Coast Coho, which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Despite ongoing unlawful storage of water, the dam’s repair proposal received all necessary state and federal permits. In August, the District filed a petition in Marion County court asking the judge to stop enforcement against their unlawful storage and instead create a special exception under Oregon law just for them to allow them to increase their water storage claim while maintaining the pre-1909 priority date on their claim.

The agency failures in 2023 are even more galling because harm from the previous Winchester Dam repair was well-documented. According to state investigators, pollution from the 2018 repairs at the dam degraded aquatic habitat, killed fish, and harmed the primary drinking water source for the City of Roseburg and the Umpqua Basin Water Association — serving approximately 37,700 people combined. Investigators also found that dam repairs were conducted without following known best management practices, even after authorities provided the dam owners with information in advance on how to protect water quality and fish.

Unfortunately, 2018 likely wasn’t the first time Winchester Dam repairs polluted drinking water supplies and harmed North Umpqua fish and wildlife. Public records describe “leakage” during another previous repair and a state official complaining to the contractor “about cement in the river and no permits.”

2023 and 2018 also aren’t the only documented fish kills at Winchester Dam. ODFW public records show that ODFW collected 86 dead steelhead (one adult, 85 juveniles) and 2 dead spring Chinook during the drawdown for Winchester Dam repairs in 2013. ODFW further estimated that 11,208 Pacific lamprey “perished” just in one small control area established within the vast reservoir reach. ODFW has the authority under statute and rule to issue fines for unlawful killing of fish and wildlife at a rate of $750 per salmon or steelhead and $50 per Pacific lamprey. The fine from the mortality documented by ODFW in 2013 would have equaled or exceeded $626,400. There is no record of ODFW issuing any fines after the 2013 fish kill at Winchester Dam.

ODFW is in charge of regulating fish passage as well as the designating the in-water work period and approving fish salvage plans for in-water work in the North Umpqua River for the protection of salmon and steelhead runs. An in-water work extension authorization letter sent by ODFW on September 1st to the Winchester Water Control District states that because the repairs continued after August 28th, that native migratory fish including spring Chinook and summer steelhead were harmed. This is especially concerning because the public record shows that all the major repair attempts at this dam between 1997 and 2013 occurred after August 28th and that all these repair attempts have drained the reservoir pool and stopped upstream migration for a minimum of 12 days. River advocates have been unable to find any fish passage authorizations, in-water work designations, or salvage plan approvals from ODFW for these previous repairs.

Following the September 27th hearing, Senator Golden issued a letter to the three agencies, reiterating the need for thorough investigative transparency and stating in part:

“Public perception has grown over the years that operation and maintenance of this dam have not been held to statutory and regulatory standards that similar facilities around the state have to meet. I see the attention surrounding this most recent repair project as an opportunity to address and, if possible, to reduce that perception.”

Senator Golden’s letter also invited representatives of the three agencies to come back to the Committee to offer follow-up testimony on the issues surrounding Winchester Dam as early as November 6th.

The state Senate committee’s leadership, and state agency actions, have provided more hope for accountability and progress at Winchester Dam after a brutal summer of needless harm to the North Umpqua River’s water quality, aquatic life, and habitat. Unfortunately, although federal agencies such as NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have also failed again and again to hold the owners of Winchester Dam accountable for harms caused to the North Umpqua, Oregon’s U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, and U.S. Representative Val Hoyle have stayed silent even after our state elected leaders have publicly called for accountability and transparency. Readers who care about the North Umpqua River should contact our federal elected leaders’ offices now and ask them to publicly stand up for our irreplaceable heritage in the Umpqua.


Jim McCarthy is Southern Oregon Program Director for WaterWatch of Oregon.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2023 issue of The Osprey on pages 14 to 17.