Oregon Demands $28 Million for Massive Fish Kill and Water Violations at Winchester Dam

By Alanna Mayham  |  Oct. 6, 2023  |  Courthouse News

The multimillion-dollar claim by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on Friday arrives after weeks of advocacy over dam repairs that killed at least 550,000 Pacific lamprey.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a $27.6 million claim for recovery damages against the Winchester Water Control District and its contractors on Friday, citing the district’s inadequate fish salvage effort while repairing the Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River.

The dam, located near Roseburg, Oregon, has not produced energy since the 1960s. Instead, it functions to provide nearby private homeowners who own the dam with a recreational flatwater reservoir.

Fish and Wildlife’s claim on Friday represents one of the largest in Oregon history for illegally killing wildlife. The claim, filed in Douglas County Circuit Court, arrives about a week after acting deputy director of Fish and Wildlife, Shaun Clements, acknowledged to a Senate committee that approved repairs to the dam resulted in a fish kill affecting “hundreds of thousands of lamprey.”

That number was reinforced by Fish and Wildlife’s announcement of the claim, which estimates a fish kill of at least 550,000 juvenile Pacific lamprey — a number that far exceeds the district’s authorized take permit of 30,000.

According to Fish and Wildlife, TerraFirma Foundation Systems — a company owned by the district’s president, Ryan Beckley — began dam drawdown for repairs around midnight on Aug. 7.

“By 8:34 a.m., ODW employees observed approximately 10 people involved in fish salvage,” the agency says in its complaint. “Fish were stranded in the exposed sediment and by 8:55 a.m., there were already stranded and dead fish below the fish ladder. ODFW employees advised the defendants about concerns over inadequate salvage efforts by 11:57 a.m.”

The next day, Fish and Wildlife wrote, its employees observed 25 contractors and volunteers salvaging.

“However, there were still large portions of the dewatered area that were not being salvaged. The ODFW employees demanded an immediate response from the defendants by email at 11:30 a.m. By that time, there were already thousands of dead fish observable throughout the project area.”

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued a pre-enforcement notice to the district as well, citing 10 possible water quality violations. Two of the violations involve the district’s contractor use of used tire mats to operate heavy machinery in the river. The materials of old tires can contain the chemical 6PPD, a water contaminant that kills fish.

Other possible violations cited in the Department of Environmental Quality’s notice include causing pollution of waters, performing work that is inconsistent with the district’s permit, operating equipment that disturb habitat or result in potential discharges and failing to maintain unobstructed fish passage after the district’s work permit was scheduled to end.

The notice states that no corrective actions are required because the district’s work on the dam is complete. However, the department does state that the district’s violations “caused significant environmental harm or posed the risk of significant environmental harm and the matter is being referred to the Department’s Office of Compliance and Enforcement for formal enforcement action.”

Moving forward, a formal enforcement from the Department of Environmental Quality could result in an assessment leading to civil penalties for each day of violation. A department representative clarified the water district may appeal these suggested violations within 20 days.

Critics of the Winchester Dam, including WaterWatch of Oregon — which has been in ongoing litigation with the district over the blockage of fish passage — are relieved by the agencies’ actions.

“This is great news for the North Umpqua and salmon and steelhead, and for the people who love and depend on this incredible river. We believe this is a conservative estimate for fish mortality and will hold up in court,” said Jim McCarthy, southern Oregon program director for WaterWatch.

The district’s president did not immediately respond for comment.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 2023, edition of Courthouse Times.