State Seeks $27.6 Million from Winchester Dam Owners After Summer Repair Work

By Erik Neumann | Oct. 6, 2023 | Jefferson Public Radio

Oregon is suing for more than $27 million in damages from the owners of a private dam near Roseburg after repairs led to a massive fish kill.

More than half a million Pacific lamprey died during repairs at the Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River.

The lawsuit, filed in Douglas County Circuit Court by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), targets the Winchester Water Control District and repair contractors TerraFirma Foundation Systems and DOWL, LLC, a company hired to manage fish rescue and salvage operations.

“The number of lamprey killed as a result of an inadequate fish salvage effort was significant and preventable,” reads a statement from ODFW released on Friday.

“Such a lackadaisical approach to fish salvage demonstrated the bad faith of Defendants in meeting their respective obligations to preserve the state’s property,” the lawsuit reads, referring to fish which are considered public property.

Ryan Beckley, the president of the water control district and the owner of TerraFirma Foundation Systems, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Winchester Dam is owned by the water control district, which is akin to a homeowners association, according to the lawsuit.

Juvenile Pacific lamprey live in muddy river banks along the North Umpqua River. They died when the reservoir behind the dam was lowered to enable repair work, which started on Aug. 7 and stretched into early September after several permit extensions were filed. The agency says the damages in the suit represent one of the largest claims for illegally killing wildlife filed in the state of Oregon.

“If these damages are recovered, it’s just going to be a fraction of the damages that have been done to an incredibly valuable river by these dam owners over the decades,” said Jim McCarthy, the Southern Oregon program director for WaterWatch, a group that has long opposed the dam because they say it obstructs fish passage on the river with an outdated fish ladder. The group has previously offered to remove the dam for free.

Pacific lamprey are listed as a sensitive species in Oregon, meaning their populations are at-risk according to ODFW. The number of juvenile lamprey that were allowed to be killed in the course of doing dam repairs was 30,000, according to the dam permits filed by NOAA Fisheries. But approximately 550,000 juvenile fish were killed this summer. ODFW estimated the damages at $50 per lamprey.

In addition to being a species of concern, Pacific lamprey are considered culturally important to Pacific Northwest tribes, including the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.

Besides damages listed in the ODFW suit, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) identified 10 class I water quality violations that include discharging untreated and contaminated water into the river. DEQ did not list specific penalties in its notice of violations to the water control district on Friday.

This piece originally appeared on Jefferson Public Radio on Oct. 6, 2023.