Winchester Dam Serves No Purpose for the Fish of the North Umpqua

By Nate Humphrey  |  Jan. 13, 2024  |  Bend Bulletin

For those of us who have visited the North Umpqua River, it’s not a place you can forget. With cold, crystal-clear water, incredible wildlife, an abundance of native wildflowers and so much more, the North Umpqua’s beauty is unmatched.

The North Umpqua and its salmon and steelhead have been struggling in recent years, from the devastating wildfires in 2020 to low flows and warm water temperatures in the summer months. Another major factor that delays and harms fish is Winchester Dam. This 17-foot, 450-foot wide, 130-year-old timber crib dam is located close to Roseburg and the confluence of the North and South Umpqua rivers. The dam has received no substantial updates for fish passage or migration since the 70s besides the newly-installed lamprey ladder, it is privately-owned by the Winchester Water Control District (WWCD), and does not provide flood control or hydropower of any kind. Its sole purpose is to provide a private water ski lake, according to WaterWatch of Oregon, for about 100 residents.

Dam removal is a popular topic nationwide, including the Klamath River dams, the Elwaha River Dam, and Condit Dam on the White Salmon River. But for some reason, Winchester Dam is not part of this conversation. This dam has been killing fish for decades, and it only continues to get worse. Winchester Dam has an outdated fish ladder that is incredibly hard for fish to navigate and it doesn’t meet state or federal fish passage regulations.

In 2018, WWCD attempted to repair a massive hole on the south side of the dam. During the repair, they poured green concrete into the North Umpqua River, polluting the drinking water of close to 37,000 people and killing fish. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) fined the district for these actions, but there was no enforcement for the fish kill. To top it all off, just a few years later the same hole has reappeared. For decades, WWCD has been attempting band-aid style repairs to the dam, often contaminating drinking water and causing harm to fish and wildlife.

This August, WWCD attempted yet another set of repairs that caused river conditions to become worse than ever. Water polluted with raw, untreated concrete was washed down the river. Fish were trapped below the dam for four weeks in dangerously high water temperatures, disrupting their migration. At least 550,000 Pacific lamprey were killed. For their horrific negligence, WWCD received fines of $26 million issued by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and over $150,000 by the DEQ. None of the repairs this summer seem to have improved fish passage for salmon and steelhead.

As for the public, it’s up to us to make sure this river continues to be one of beauty and filled with incredible fish. Removing Winchester Dam will help the entire ecosystem of the North Umpqua, and there are multiple ways to support the North Umpqua River and ensure it is protected from further harm.

First, consider supporting conservation organizations actively working to remove this deadbeat dam. Second, I urge you to write a letter to your elected officials and our U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, sharing your disappointment in how this river has been treated by WWCD and the state and federal agencies. And lastly, I encourage you to learn more about the North Umpqua River and the amazing fish that call this river home. It’s time to remove Winchester Dam and restore a free-flowing North Umpqua River.

Nate Humphrey lives in Bend and fishes the North Umpqua River around 30 days a year, primarily for wild summer steelhead. This piece originally appeared in the Jan. 13, 2024, edition of the Bend Bulletin. Banner photo by Kirk Blaine.