River Advocates Applaud Ruling Protecting North Umpqua Water Quality


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

River Advocates Applaud Ruling Protecting North Umpqua Water Quality

Administrative Law Judge Finds Botched Winchester Dam Repairs Not Exempt From Law

Link to Ruling: https://bit.ly/39vGBAZ

Advocates’ August 2020 Letter Regarding Winchester Dam’s Pollution Record: https://bit.ly/2K4ZkKg

DEQ’s Amended Notice of Civil Penalty to Basco Logging: https://bit.ly/3i960US

Roseburg – Last week, an Oregon administrative law judge’s ruling delivered advocates 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. The ruling struck down the arguments of the district’s former president and current resident and director, who claimed that their dam repairs should be exempt from state water quality laws. The win is the latest development in an ongoing state-level contested case over a $53,578 fine issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) against Basco Logging, Inc., the longtime primary contractor for repairs at the 450-foot wide, 17-foot tall, 130-year-old Winchester Dam. WaterWatch of Oregon, Steamboaters, Native Fish Society, Umpqua Watersheds, and Oregon Wild intervened in the case on behalf of the river, water quality, fish, and wildlife, and are represented by Crag Law Center.

According to state investigators, pollution from a October 2018 repair 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. Winchester Dam lies entirely within state designated Essential Salmonid Habitat and federally designated critical habitat for Oregon Coast Coho salmon protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

In issuing her ruling, the judge noted that “DEQ provided an abundance of evidence” in support of its allegations of unlawful waste discharge into the North Umpqua, as well as “very persuasive photographic evidence showing highly visible sediment discharge originating from the dam repair activities.” The case will now proceed to a formal hearing in July.

Since the early 1990s, Basco Logging – the company of a former president and current resident and director of the Winchester Water Control District – has served as the primary repair contractor at the District’s dam. Before seeking that the fine be thrown out, Basco Logging admitted in writing to some water quality violations. On average, Winchester Dam repairs have occurred once every three years since the 1960s, but public records show no permits for these repairs.

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 one previous repair and a state official complaining to the contractor “about cement in the river and no permits.” State records also show the dam owners have at other times repaired the dam by installing large numbers of 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.

The river advocates intervening in this case are part of a larger coalition of twenty-two fishing, conservation and whitewater groups working for over two 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 and steelhead. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Winchester Dam impedes access to 160 miles of high quality habitat for salmon and steelhead. Recently, the coalition forced the owners to finally agree to a schedule bringing their emergency preparedness into compliance with state law for the first time in decades.