August 28, 2023
Oregon’s North Umpqua River, one of the most revered places for wild steelhead in the world, is facing new adversity due to a local water conservation district that owns and has nepotistically contracted out repairs for the derelict Winchester Dam near Roseburg. The Native Fish Society’s (NFS) Kirk Blaine recently reported several violations to state and federal agencies, including concrete pollution, fish ladder blockage, a Pacific lamprey kill, unauthorized placement of boulder fill, and more.
According to the NFS website: "Despite far more expansive recent claims made to the public by WWCD (Winchester Water Conservation District) about these repairs, WWCD representatives previously told state and federal regulators that the repairs would be 'to the minimum extent necessary to eliminate known and reasonably anticipated dam safety deficiencies at the dam.'"
Work on the dam reportedly made the dam’s fish ladder inoperable for three weeks, which trapped the few remaining fish in warm water below the dam. The WWCD is also storing nearly 100 acre-feet more water behind the dam than is allocated, which the Oregon Water Resources Department has ordered WWCD to lower, without results.
Blaine, NFS’s Southern Oregon Coordinator, said the WWCD is not being held accountable by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), or the Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL).
“Since the start of this project NFS and WaterWatch have been documenting and reporting violations to DEQ, DSL, and ODFW,” Blaine said. “On Monday 8/21 I started an OERS (Oregon Emergency Response System) report for a concrete spill in the river. When I showed up, the contractors immediately changed their operations and started taking pictures in the early morning hours of work. This changed their general work for the pour on 8/24 however the operation setup is not sufficient to ensure they are not properly treating polluted waters.”
WWCD hired the basement-repair company of its own board president for these repairs despite the fact that the company has no experience working with dams.
Winchester Dam, a former hydroelectric power impoundment in disrepair, is a priority for fish passage repair, says Blaine. The dam blocks over 150 miles of native-fish habitat even when the ladder is operational. A coalition of 17 conservation groups has worked to alert government officials of the "chronic non-compliance with state and federal repair permitting, engineering, water quality, and dam safety requirements as well as their disregard for protections for fish and wildlife despite the essential habitat importance of the North Umpqua for salmon and steelhead." This coalition has offered to remove this dam free of charge–an offer that still stands, according to Blaine–which has gone unanswered.
The timing couldn’t be worse, as this former steelhead stronghold's recent poor returns prompted the ODFW to close the entire river to all steelhead fishing this year. Only 449 wild steelhead returned to the North Umpqua River last summer, which was the lowest run on record at the time. The entire West Coast population of wild steelhead has been struggling to regain a foothold for decades.
"The major ask here is that state agencies hold WWCD accountable for these violations," said Blaine. "It is also clear that WWCD can not responsibly maintain or own this structure without hurting the entire Umpqua basin ecosystem, as well as the communities of Oregon."
Concerned anglers can send a letter to Oregon representatives by clicking this link.
Josh Bergan is Fly Fisherman's digital editor.