Fishermen, Conservationists Score Another Win Against Outlaw Dam High-hazard Winchester Dam to Comply with Public Safety Regulations for First Time in Decades

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 2, 2020

CONTACT:
Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch of Oregon, 541-708-0048, jim@waterwatch.org

Fishermen, Conservationists Score Another Win Against Outlaw Dam
High-hazard Winchester Dam to Comply with Public Safety Regulations for First Time in Decades

River Advocates’ October 2020 Letter Regarding Winchester Dam Safety: https://bit.ly/2VvTwfo
Winchester Dam’s October 2019 State Safety Inspection Letter: https://bit.ly/3g4tedU
Winchester Dam’s Current Emergency Action Plan: https://bit.ly/3k6Yb2c
Fact Sheet on Winchester Dam: https://bit.ly/3mxdKl2

Roseburg ¬– A coalition of local and statewide fishing, conservation, and whitewater groups welcomed another victory in their ongoing campaign to end harm caused by the Winchester Water Control District’s operation and maintenance of the Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River. In late November, after a year of river advocates raising alarms with Oregon officials over the dam owners’ chronic non-compliance with state dam safety requirements, our coalition learned that the owners had finally agreed to a schedule bringing their emergency preparedness into compliance. As a first step, state- and county-level safety officials have approved an interim emergency plan from the owners specifically addressing debris removal (large trees) at the dam. This will serve as a stopgap until a more comprehensive emergency plan, mostly compliant with Oregon statute, is produced by January 1st, 2021. The District will then have until October 31st, 2021 to produce an inundation map showing areas likely to be flooded in the case of dam failure. The completion of the map and written plan will mark the first time in decades that the dam owners have furnished state and Douglas County first responders with an functional emergency action plan for Winchester Dam as required by law.

The 450-foot wide, 17-foot tall, 130-year-old 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 dam’s current emergency plan dates to 1987 and appears to violate multiple requirements listed under OAR 690-020-0400(4), among other issues. Meanwhile, the District has yet to complete the requested comprehensive inspection. The people, property, and public infrastructure of the North Umpqua River below Winchester Dam are currently at unacceptable risk of harm or death because the District ignored repeated requests over years to update their Emergency Action Plan to comply with state statutes.

There may be an increased risk of a failure at Winchester Dam in the near term due to recent catastrophic fire in the North Umpqua combined with a La Nina climate pattern forecast for Oregon this winter. In the lead up to the November breakthrough, river advocates had urged state officials in writing to exercise their authority under ORS 540.482 and ORS 540.995 to require the District to generate a statutorily required emergency action plan for Winchester Dam as soon as possible to reduce the risk of harm or death to people, public infrastructure, and property below the dam.

“I live, own property, get my drinking water, and recreate with my family and friends in the river below this dam,” said Jeff Dose, Steamboaters Board Member. “This dam’s emergency preparedness and record of non-compliance with public safety regulations is of great concern to me, and should be of concern to anyone who gets their drinking water from the City of Roseburg or the Umpqua Basin Water Association, anyone who lives or recreates on the river below the dam, and anyone who cares about the emergency personnel and first responders of Douglas County.”

“We hope that it is only for a little while longer that people, property, public infrastructure, and emergency personnel are at unacceptable risk of harm, financial loss, or disruption because landowners on a private waterski lake could not be bothered to follow rules requiring them to show concern for their neighbors, first responders, and public resources.” said Jim McCarthy, Southern Oregon Program Director for WaterWatch. “We welcome Winchester Water Control District’s newfound consideration and compliance regarding dam safety regulations, and will continue working to ensure they extend their compliance to other regulations intended to protect salmon, drinking water, and healthy rivers.”

“From my perspective, this isn’t just about protecting people and property from irresponsible dam owners,” said Kirk Blaine, Southern Oregon Regional Coordinator for Native Fish Society. “This is about doing what’s right to protect a spectacular and irreplaceable river.”

###