Since the last update to appear in this newsletter, the coalition of fishing, conservation, and whitewater boating groups working to bring attention to – and stop – Winchester Dam’s ongoing harm to the North Umpqua River’s salmon and steelhead has achieved significant progress.
In October 2019, the Oregon Water Resources Department, which oversees dam safety for non-hydropower dams in the state, downgraded Winchester Dam’s condition to “poor.” The agency also requested that the owners hire a professional engineer to comprehensively inspect its structure, and warned the owners to address known dam safety issues soon. Winchester Dam has not received a comprehensive structural inspection since 1987, and in recent decades the owners of the dam have regularly undertaken repairs without the benefit of professional engineering. Because many of us live or recreate below this dam, and because the longstanding structural safety issues at the dam also delay or otherwise cause harm to salmon and steelhead, the coalition is monitoring this situation closely. As noted in a previous update, Winchester Dam is officially categorized as “high hazard” by the state, primarily due to likely loss of life in the case of dam failure among the people who frequent the river, parks, and boat ramps just downstream.
This state action means dam repairs in late summer 2020 are almost certain, making our coalition’s push to ensure enforcement of permitting and other laws protecting fish and water quality at the dam during repairs even more important. The Water Resources Department’s appropriate if long overdue action raises the question of why the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife still has not allowed – or required – a professional inspection of the obvious ongoing problems and disrepair in the dam’s fish ladder.
Another positive development came in January 2020, when the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality levied a $58,378 fine for violations during the infamous autumn 2018 repair at Winchester Dam. This almost certainly would not have happened without our coalition working together to demand accountability in the wake of this spill and fish kill. According to DEQ, pollution from this repair 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. DEQ found that dam repairs were conducted without following established best management practices, even after state and federal agencies provided information in advance on how to protect water quality and fish. This finding by DEQ also adds to the mountain of evidence that the Oregon Department of State Lands and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should require permits for future repairs at the dam to protect natural resources and the public.
Of course, there is an opportunity for an appeal of the DEQ fine within twenty days. This would set up a process for a contested case with an administrative law judge. If so, there would be opportunity for members of the coalition to petition to intervene in the public – and the North Umpqua’s – interest. We have asked DEQ for notice when and if an appeal is filed.
2020 is promising to be an eventful year for progress toward ending Winchester Dam’s needless harm to the incredible North Umpqua. Please stay tuned for more news and updates.
Do you have questions or concerns regarding Winchester Dam? Please contact Jim McCarthy, WaterWatch’s Southern Oregon Program Director, at 541-708-0048 or firstname.lastname@example.org.