Agencies raise concern over Winchester Dam’s impact on aquatic life

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Ore. – Multiple Oregon agencies are raising concern about the welfare of native fish in the North Umpqua River.

This week, repair work has begun on the Winchester Dam in Douglas County.

Part of this work requiring temporarily de watering and closing the fish water used by species like the pacific lamprey.

Water watch of Oregon says the aquatic death tole from this repairs is expected to be catastrophic.

“Right now is the peak for summer steelhead and they are trapped below the dam and a heat wave is coming,” said Jim McCarthy, Southern Oregon program director for WaterWatch of Oregon.  “So the next series of deaths we’re gonna see are the summer steelhead trapped below that dam.”

McCarthy says river advocates pleaded with o-d-f-w and other government agencies to reject the construction proposal with no luck.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife approved the repairs in December of last year with certain requirements needed to be met by the water control district.

These include limiting the closure of the fish ladder and completing fish salvage and relocation steps before the repairs begin.

The Winchester Water Control District has released a statement in response to these claims.

District president Ryan Beckley said ” despite the numerous false and misleading public statements made by groups like WaterWatch, the Winchester Dam is incredibly safe for both native salmonid species and for the public…  If the dam was truly killing fish, there would be evidence…And the thousands of people using the river would let us know”

You can read the full Winchester Water Control District statement here:

Between 8/7/23 and 8/28/23 the Winchester Water Control District will be performing a maintenance project on the Winchester Dam. This project has been in the design and permitting process for nearly (3) years as we have worked with engineers, contractors, and regulatory agencies to develop the lowest impact and most efficient process for conducting the required work. 

Generally, the repair work addresses (3) main objectives.

  1. Structural upgrade. Crews will install a series of (109) epoxy grouted anchors through the dam face and into bedrock with a corrosion protected steel lattice over the existing face of the dam.  While there is no indication of any structural deficiency in the dam, in 2017 a consortium of environmental groups, specifically targeting the Winchester Dam, petitioned the Oregon Water Resources Department to change the structural evaluation criteria for wood structure dams.  This change effectively made it impossible for the WWCD to meet the new criteria, only because we are unable to test the structure in the manner required by the new rule.  The result is that the dam was listed as “high hazard”, not because of any identified deficiency, but only because we were not able to test in the required manner.  It was at that point that WWCD engaged DOWL engineering, a firm with a specialty engineering team dedicated to working on wood structure dams, and with a 40+ year history of working specifically on the Winchester Dam. Among many innovative design considerations, the design team at DOWL along with the contractor proposed substitution of a non-toxic, hydrophobic epoxy resin for the grouted anchors that replaces the standard cement grout, effectively eliminating any risk of concrete contamination.  The structural upgrades have a design life of at least (50) years.
  2. Correcting a design flaw in the fish ladder. During the 1983 construction of the hydroelectric station and fish ladder upgrades, the concrete headwall that parallels the face of the dam was not extended far enough to prevent water from dropping directly into the “low water” entry for the ladder.  This deficiency was mitigated with the installation of a large log affixed directly above the pool, but we determined the best course of action was to permanently correct the deficiency by extending the headwall and providing a permanent solution.
  3. Permanently correcting the “false attractant flow”. 

Another design flaw from the 1983 project was recognized in recent years while working with ODFW staff to improve conditions and efficiency at the fish ladder.  The wood structure of the dam is designed to allow water to pass through the dam itself, effectively protecting the wood structure from degradation. When the headwall for the ladder was installed against the dam face it caused that water flow to consolidate and flow around the end of the headwall.  The increased volume and velocity have resulted in erosion and degradation that created a “false attractant flow” into the low water entry pool of the ladder.  When ODFW staff identified this issue, the WWCD immediately installed an effective temporary mitigation measure and incorporated a permanent repair plan into the project.  Essentially the core damage will be repaired, the damaged wood elements will be replaced with new, untreated #1 grade lumber, and a series of non-toxic, hydrophobic Polyurethane “flow blocks” will be installed to permanently prevent this condition from occurring. 

Despite the numerous false and misleading public statements made by groups like WaterWatch, the Winchester Dam is incredibly safe for both native salmonid species and for the public. The dam is an invaluable resource for fisheries management, providing ODFW and NMFS with the only opportunity in the Northwest to accurately count all migratory salmonids on a coast run river (a river originating West of the Cascade Range, terminating in the Pacific Ocean).  Data collected at the Winchester Dam is used to develop fisheries management policy for the entire region.  It is also the most efficient and safe place to collect hatchery brood, allowing ODFW staff to selectively collect exactly the right number, size and sex of each species with minimal risk to the fish or staff.

Another favorite topic of the WaterWatch group is that the fish ladder does not meet the current NMFS design standards.  While this is technically accurate, it completely ignores some very important facts, specifically that NMFS standards were not developed for migratory salmonid species, but instead were developed to literally cover ALL fish species across the country.  In Oregon, and specifically the Umpqua river system, the largest and most detrimental predator of salmonid species (including the protected Pacific Coho) is the non-native, invasive Small Mouth Bass. ODFW has been keeping accurate records of fish runs at the Winchester Dam fish ladder for many decades, and what is widely known is that all salmonid species migrate through the ladder with ease and efficiency, but the invasive, non-native Small Mouth Bass does not.  The dam has been providing an invaluable and irreplaceable protective measure for the fish habitat in the upper North Umpqua.  The robust health of the fishery is literally world famous, and the Winchester Dam is a large part of keeping it healthy.

While groups like WaterWatch regularly label the Winchester Dam as “prolific fish killer”, there simply is no evidence to support the claim.  Amacher Park sits just 400 yds downstream from the dam and is easily one of, if not the busiest public river access in Douglas County, used year around by fishermen, rafters, floaters, swimmers and other recreators.  If the dam was truly killing fish, there would be evidence.  There would be dead salmon, trout and steelhead below the dam, and the thousands of people using the river would let us know.  But the reality is the dam is not harming fish.  The dam is not unsafe. 

Like most of the 154 property owners that make up the Winchester Water Control District, I was born in this area and the North Umpqua is my home.  My family built their first home here in 1959, and I am the 3rd generation to have a home above the dam.  I have literally been here my entire life, and like all of the other members of the WWCD, the health of the river, the health of the fishery and safety of the dam is more important to us than to anyone not from this area. This is a very special place, with pristine waters and an incredible fishery.  We all are incredibly dedicated to keeping it that way. 

The WWCD works closely with ODFW staff to constantly evaluate the effectiveness of the fish ladder and we have consistently worked to improve conditions.  The WWCD has worked with local businesses like North River Jet Boats to design and install improvements to Lamprey Eel passage through the ladder, and the area above the dam is recognized as the largest Lamprey estuary in Southern Oregon, and with conservation groups like Umpqua Fisheries Enhancement Derby to upgrade the brood collection facilities and most recently to install a state of the art camera system that includes counting software that is capable if identifying species, sex and size of migrating fish, and has a publicly accessible livestream on Youtube that gets thousands of views daily during fish runs.  The fish ladder viewing area is one of the most visited public attractions in Oregon, with over 80,000 visitors annually.

The members of the Winchester Water Control District remain committed to responsibly managing and maintaining the Winchester Dam and to continuing to work with our agency partners to operate and improve the efficacy of the fish ladder. 

Ryan Beckley, President

Winchester Water Control District

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Taylar Ansures is a producer and reporter for NBC5 News. Taylar is from Redding, California and went to California State University, Chico. After graduating, she joined KRCR News Channel 7 in Redding as a morning producer. She moved to Southern Oregon in 2022 to be closer to family and became KTVL News 10’s digital producer. Taylar is currently finishing her Master's Degree in Professional Creative Writing through the University of Denver. In her free time, Taylar frequents independent bookstores and explores hiking trails across Southern Oregon and Northern California.
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