River Advocates Await Ruling on Botched Winchester Dam Repair

MEDIA ADVISORY: December 9, 2020

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

River Advocates Await Ruling on Botched Winchester Dam Repair
2018 Incident on North Umpqua River Killed Fish, Polluted Drinking Water for 37,700 People

DEQ’s January 2020 Notice of Civil Penalty to Basco Logging: https://bit.ly/3lTYVb8
Agency Documents and Photos Regarding 2018 Pollution Spill: https://bit.ly/3oAUWBV
Advocates’ August 2020 Letter Regarding Dam’s Pollution Record: https://bit.ly/2K4ZkKg
Fact Sheet on Winchester Dam: https://bit.ly/3mxdKl2

Roseburg – Just over two years after a botched, unpermitted repair at Winchester Dam spilled a lethal mix of green concrete and sediment into the famously clear North Umpqua River during the migration of protected salmon, a coalition of local and statewide fishing and conservation groups are awaiting a ruling by an Oregon administrative law judge to learn whether the perpetrator will be held accountable. Final briefing wrapped up Friday for the state-level contested case over a $58,378 fine issued in January by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality against Basco Logging, Inc., the longtime primary contractor for repairs at the 450-foot wide, 17-foot tall, 130-year-old Winchester Dam. A ruling is expected by late January. The coalition – 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 the October 2018 repair at the dam degraded aquatic habitat, killed numerous 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 repair contractor and the dam owners – Basco Logging and Winchester Water Control District, respectively – 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.

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, which is maintained to provide motorized flatwater boating exclusively for about 200 private landowners. In seeking that the fine be thrown out, Basco Logging admitted to some water quality violations but asked the administrative law judge to rule that their dam repairs should be considered exempt from state water quality laws. 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 to end ongoing harm to the North Umpqua from Winchester Dam. As part of this effort, the coalition has urged government officials to take action against 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. Recently, the coalition’s advocacy compelled the dam owners to finally agree to a schedule bringing their emergency preparedness into compliance with state law for the first time in decades.

The 2018 pollution spill and fish kill at Winchester Dam was extensively documented and investigated by state officials, and was even captured on the Oregon Explorer basemap.