Winchester Dam continues to kill and harm our fish

From the News-Review by Kirk Blaine


After a catastrophic return of summer steelhead last year and multiple years of below-average spring Chinook, Winchester Dam remains more dilapidated than ever before. How does this 130-year-old dam maintained for private recreation affect the salmon and steelhead runs we all enjoy?

Sadly, Winchester Dam is likely the most significant fish killer in the Umpqua Basin, harming and depleting every native-run attempting to migrate up or downstream from the 160 miles of high-quality habitat stretching above this structure. A multitude of large false attraction holes remains in and under the dam. A gaping hole between the face of the dam and the fish ladder is still covered by what looks like a piece of conveyor belt, attesting to its careless upkeep.

These false attraction flows mean that fish will continue to jump into the side of the dam and meet hazards, injury and delay. Eroded concrete and exposed rebar are visible in the dam’s foundations, abutments and fish ladder. The fish ladder remains confusing to navigate for fish and doesn’t meet state or federal fish passage regulations. Meanwhile, a visible downstream curve in the dam crest raises questions about whether the dam is a threat not just to fish, but to public safety.

Almost two years ago, I wrote an opinion piece sharing issues with Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River. Over the same time, state officials have continued to urge Winchester Dam’s owners to repair the dam and fish ladder. But to this day, little has been done on the dam itself to fix glaring problems or assist our salmon and steelhead in passing the structure. This is a clear insult to those involved in the hard work all over Douglas County focused on restoring our fisheries populations, from habitat projects such as riparian planting to the modernization of fish passage at Soda Springs Dam.

Winchester Dam is unlawfully killing and harming our salmon and steelhead. State and federal agencies have an obligation to uphold the rule of law to protect citizens and our natural resources. Rules and regulations for Winchester Dam must be enforced to protect our rivers and fish.

We even have a recent successful example of an agency holding private dam owners accountable for a fish-killing dam in southern Oregon: the former Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River. In the years before the successful removal of Savage Rapids Dam, which was removed to benefit salmon runs, the National Marine Fisheries Service filed a lawsuit against its owners for unlawful harm to federally protected salmon.

The National Marine Fisheries Service should take the same action now to protect federally protected salmon at Winchester Dam.

I ask our state’s senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, to help direct federal agencies to help the North Umpqua River and its fish. The senators must continue to uphold their legacy on the North Umpqua by starting with bringing the rule of law to this dilapidated dam.

Two years ago, I saw two options for Winchester Dam:

  1. Require the dam owners to finally overcome their indifference to responsibility and repair and rebuild the dam properly to bring it and its ladder up to state and federal standards; or
  2. Remove the dam with public funds as conservation groups offered to the dam owners to do in writing back in 2020.

Today, it has unfortunately become clear that the Winchester Dam owners cannot be trusted to repair and maintain Winchester Dam to protect the North Umpqua. The dam represents a substantial financial and legal responsibility the owners have neglected to properly uphold, alongside their responsibility for the dam’s ongoing harm to salmon and steelhead in North Umpqua River. It is clear that removing Winchester Dam will benefit everyone in Douglas County and our fish.

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