State Considers Penalties, Fines After Umpqua River Dam Repair Kills Thousands of Fish

By Alex Baumhardt  |  Sept. 27, 2023  |  Oregon Capital Chronicle

The operators and renovators of a controversial dam on the Umpqua River in southern Oregon could face state fines and civil penalties following repairs that killed hundreds of thousands of fish and resulted in environmental violations.

The privately owned Winchester Dam north of Roseburg underwent repairs in August for the third time in a decade. The work took several weeks longer than planned and involved draining a reservoir behind the dam that triggered an emergency fish salvage operation and drew the ire of conservationists who have long wanted the dam decommissioned.

“There was a fish kill, it was on the order of hundreds of thousands of lamprey, and by statute that could result in significant financial damages,” Shaun Clements, deputy director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the state Senate Natural Resources Committee at a hearing on Wednesday.

“Additionally, there was evidence of (Department of Environmental Quality) violations and, again, they could be liable for civil penalties in that case,” he said.

Clements said agency officials are consulting with the state Department of Justice and because of that could not share details about any violations or fines the dam owners might face. The environmental quality department is investigating whether the Winchester Water Control District caused excessive pollution and violated state water quality standards, according to Dylan Darling, a spokesperson for the agency.

Sen. Jeff Golden (D—Ashland), the committee chair, asked Clements and officials from the Oregon Water Resources Department and the environmental quality department to report to the Legislature within 90 days on what happened during the latest repairs and what needs to be done.

“Oversight and regulation has not been as transparent as it needs to be,” Golden told the agency leaders. He also requested an update at legislative meetings scheduled for November.

The water resources department oversees dam safety and inspection and the environmental department is in charge of ensuring that the conditions of state and federal water quality permits are met.

Ryan Beckley, president of the Winchester Water Control District and owner of the company contracted to undertake the latest repairs, said state fish and wildlife officials had not communicated with him about potential violations. He refuted Celements’ accounting of the number of lamprey killed.

“I’m incredibly impressed the design and construction teams were able to execute the project as efficiently as they did,” Beckley said in an e-mail. “I’d like to point out that we have multiple videos of adult steelhead swimming through the flood gates during construction, essentially proving there was no delay in fish migration during the project, which is the only reason for concern regarding the timeline. ODFW along with all of the agencies involved have those videos, but of course have never mentioned that in any of their statements.”

Calls to Decommission

The Winchester Dam is made of wood and cement and is more than 130 years old. A former hydropower dam owned by PacifiCorp, it was given for free to more than 100 residents in the late 1960s to enjoy the 1.7-mile-long reservoir as their own private lake. Residents are members of the water district, which is responsible for maintenance.

But repairs in recent years have gone awry, including an emergency fish salvage in 2013 and fines in 2018 when concrete got into the water during repairs.

The latest problems have brought a renewed sense of urgency to environmental groups that have long wanted the dam decommissioned. Doing so would reconnect 160 miles of north Umpqua River and allow unimpeded movement for native migratory fish.

In recent weeks, more than 800 people have commented, e-mailed and called Gov. Tina Kotek’s office and state agencies, asking them to review the dam and demand an investigation of the recent repairs, Jim McCarthy, southern Oregon program director for the non-profit WaterWatch of Oregon, said in a news release.

Winchester Dam is considered a “high hazard dam” by the water resources department because it could have catastrophic consequences if it were to fail, Ivan Gall, deputy director for water management at the Oregon Water Resources Department, said during the hearing. The dam is upriver from a key drinking water source for the city of Roseburg and the Umpqua Basin Water Association.

It’s also located in a state and federally designated fish habitat and home to migratory native species, including steelhead, coho salmon and lamprey, a culturally significant food source for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, who live in the area.

Clements said the fish and wildlife agency’s assessment of the dam’s fish passage structure is not up to current standards and could require upgrades to protect fish traveling through the dam. He said agency officials consider summer steelhead in the Umpqua River among two of the fish populations of most concern in the state because of declining numbers.

Lawmakers Split on Dam

For 18 years, members of the Winchester Water Control District were in an area represented by Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D—Eugene). Over the last year, however, they’ve been represented by Sen. David Brock Smith (R—Port Orford). Both serve on the Senate Natural Resources Committee and have different views of the dam and its critics.

Brock Smith visited the dam in August while repairs were underway, and defended the time overruns during the meeting.

“I feel as though I need to protect my individuals a little bit,” he said.

Prozanski, on the other hand, was dismayed that an unnecessary fish kill took place and that there wasn’t better oversight.

I’m very frustrated as to how long it’s taken to get our state agencies engaged in this,” Prozanski said.

He told the agency leaders he’d tried for years to ensure they and the Winchester Water Control District take repairs seriously and communicate with the tribe and others affected by the dam to get it up to modern standards with minimal harm. Besides the agency report on the August repairs, he said officials need a plan for  modernizing the dam and what its future should be.

“Transparency is one thing. Action is another thing,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle on Sept. 27, 2023. Photo by Kirk Blaine.