Fishermen, Conservationists Go to Court Over Outlaw Dam

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 10, 2020
CONTACT: Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch of Oregon, 541-708-0048,
Fishermen, Conservationists Go to Court Over Outlaw Dam
Dilapidated, high-hazard Winchester Dam is harming fish, water quality, and livelihoods
Roseburg ¬– Steamboaters, WaterWatch of Oregon, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens’ Associations filed litigation in federal court last week to end harm caused by the Winchester Water Control District’s operation and maintenance of the Winchester Dam in the North Umpqua River. The allied fishing and conservation organizations allege that the District’s 130-year-old dam – maintained to provide motorized flatwater boating exclusively for about 200 private landowners – causes damage to struggling salmon runs while impeding access to 160 miles of high quality habitat. The groups’ challenge deals specifically with the delay, injury, or killing of protected Oregon Coast Coho salmon by the dam’s outdated and poorly maintained fish ladder, by the District’s repeated unpermitted dam repair activities, and by the overwhelming number of leaks through the crumbling wood, concrete, and steel structure. Earthjustice, a public interest environmental law firm, represents the groups.
The 450-foot wide, 17-foot tall dam is the second highest ranked privately-owned structure on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Statewide Fish Passage Priority List, where it is noted for impeding passage for spring Chinook, fall Chinook, summer steelhead, winter steelhead, cutthroat trout, and Pacific Lamprey, as well as Coho. Winchester Dam is categorized as “high hazard” by the Oregon Department of Water Resources, primarily due to likely loss of life in the case of dam failure among the people who frequent the river, parks, and boat ramps just downstream. In 2019, state officials downgraded the dam’s condition to “poor,” requested that the District hire an engineer to conduct the first comprehensive inspection of the structure since 1987, and address known safety issues. The people, property, and public infrastructure of the North Umpqua River below Winchester Dam are also at unacceptable risk of harm or death because the District ignored repeated requests over years to update their Emergency Action Plan as required under statute. 
Winchester Dam came under greater scrutiny by fishing and conservation groups statewide after pollution from a 2018 dam repair killed numerous young salmon and steelhead and harmed the primary drinking water source for 37,700 people. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality levied a $58,378 fine after finding that the repairs were conducted without following established best management practices, even after state and federal agencies provided information in advance on how to protect water quality and fish. Since then, the District has rejected a 2019 offer to contribute $8,000 in engineering services to improve fish ladder function, and a 2020 offer to raise the funds necessary to remove the decaying dam at little to no direct cost to the owners.
“For over 50 years the Steamboaters have led successful efforts to protect and restore the North Umpqua’s important cool water and spawning and rearing habitat for salmon and steelhead, and most of that habitat is above Winchester Dam,” said Tim Goforth, Steamboaters Board President. “The more we learn about this old dam the worse it gets. The fact that every salmon and steelhead passing over this dam risks injury or death by exposed rebar, eroded concrete, or a pollution spill negates our work to protect fish habitat upstream.”
“From our perspective, this isn’t just about protecting Coho salmon from an irresponsible dam owner,” said Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director for PCFFA. “This is about protecting coastal fishing communities where thousands of good paying jobs, millions of pounds of annual seafood production, and a treasured way of life depends on healthy salmon runs.” 
“The North Umpqua River is vital to Oregon’s economy and quality of life but faces serious challenges due to dams, climate change, population growth, and other impacts,” said Jim McCarthy, Southern Oregon Program Director for WaterWatch. “Winchester Water Control District’s fish-killing, dangerous, and obsolete dam provides no flood control, hydropower, or water supply function except to back up the river for a private waterski lake. It’s long past time to end the needless harm this dam causes to invaluable natural resources.”