By Alanna Mayham | Sept. 15, 2023 | Courthouse News Service
Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife heard a handful of public comments about repairs to the Winchester Dam and the effects on aquatic species and the local economy.
Conservationists and anglers on Friday urged the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to hold the Winchester Dam’s owners responsible for recent state-authorized repairs that critics say have killed thousands of Pacific lamprey, cut off fish migration and polluted the North Umpqua River.
“Decisions made by the Winchester Water Control District and sanctioned by government agencies, including the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, have proven to be nothing less than catastrophic for the aquatic ecosystem and steelhead populations that depend on it,” Wild Steelhead Coalition board member Jenny O’Brien said during the department’s public commission meeting.
O’Brien joined other conservationists and anglers in trying to prompt a response from the department. The most recent call to action began in August when owners of the Winchester Dam near Roseburg, Oregon, announced that the dam would close for three weeks for repairs and reservoir drawdown.
The dam, which hasn’t produced energy since the 1960s, creates a private flatwater reservoir for homeowners who live behind the dam, known as the Winchester Water Control District.
Friday’s speakers noted the district’s ownership serves a private interest on a public river, echoing past critics — though the primary controversy surrounding the dam has been its effect on fish runs, particularly those of steelhead trout and threatened Oregon coast coho salmon.
Among those who have called for changes at the dam is the nonprofit WaterWatch of Oregon, which sued the district in 2022, claiming the dam’s fish ladder blocked access to spawning habitat and falsely attracted fish to areas of the dam with leaks.
The district previously relied upon inexpensive repair methods that polluted the river and failed to fix leaks long-term. WaterWatch offered to assist with dam removal, yet the district has insisted it can fix its own dam problems, and argued its fish ladder helps prevent predatory smallmouth bass from swimming through.
Another example of previous flag-raising was from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which scored Winchester relatively high in terms of being an artificial obstruction to fish passage.
More recently, the department closed the river to wild summer steelhead angling in late July, predicting this year’s run would 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.”
“Current counts of wild summer steelhead passing Winchester Dam are just under half of the average wild fish return,” the announcement said. “Low water flows and water temperatures approaching 80 degrees in the lower North Umpqua and mainstem Umpqua rivers also play a role in this emergency angling closure.”
Still, the department joined three other agencies in approving three weeks of dam repairs, much of which have been heavily criticized by onlookers to the commission and local media.
‘Within the first 24 hours of the project, I witnessed thousands of dead and dying Pacific lamprey,” said Kirk Blaine, the southern Oregon coordinator for Native Fish Society, an organization that joined WaterWatch in petitioning the repairs to Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality in July.
“Tragically, the small fish salvage crew that started hours after the reservoir drawdown when these native fish were already stranded and dying.”
When news broke of the lamprey salvage, Winchester Water Control District President Ryan Beckley told Courthouse News via email that authorities from the department did not permit the use of irrigation until the third day of repairs, “even though it is a proven mitigation method, and the resources were on hand and ready to be deployed from the beginning of the project.”
“ODFW also elected to bring in a number of staff to assist with the salvage efforts Wednesday,” Beckley added.
Blaine joined other speakers in mentioning the district’s use of used tire mats to operate heavy machinery in the river, a move that drew ire since old tires can contain the chemical 6PPD, a water contaminate that kills fish.
He also told the commission he visited the dam three times to find wet concrete spilling into the river, and reported the issues to state and federal agencies.
“As repairs fell behind schedule, deadlines set by ODFW to reopen fish passage were missed,” Blaine said. “ODFW then approved an extension to continue blocking fish passage. That deadline was also missed. Fish migration was blocked for 29 days, eight days longer than the initial ODFW Fish Passage Authorization permit.”
Another speaker, Scott Howell, is a licensed fishing guide on the North Umpqua River. He told the commission when he hears commentary in defense of the dam, he hears a lot of “I’s and my’s.”
“‘I’m losing my waterfront property, I’m losing my private summer playground and I’m losing my favorite fishing spot, which is below the dam’ — which is a place where fish artificially stack up because of the dam itself,” Howell said. But while Howell explained that he understands these concerns, especially as a fishing guide who profits from fish, he said there has never been a more important time to protect them.
In a similar sentiment Rich Zellman, another North Umpqua fishing guide, said that while angling closures in 2021 and 2023 significantly impacted his income, there’s not enough “writing on the wall that these fish are in trouble.”
“We need to give them every opportunity we can so they can return and thrive,” Zellman said.
Nathan Humphrey, a Bend, Oregon resident, reminded the department its mission is to protect and enhance Oregon’s fish and wildlife and their habitats for present and future generations.
“Now is the time. Please stand up for the community surrounding the North Umpqua. Stand up for these fish. Hold WWCD accountable for their failures. Give future generations the chance to experience these wild anadromous fish before it’s too late,” Humphrey said.
The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This article originally appeared in Courthouse News Service on Sept. 15, 2023. Photo by Alanna Mayham.