The debate over the fate of the Winchester Dam may soon reach its spill-over point in United States District Court.
A lawsuit filed Nov. 6 in the U.S. District Court in Eugene asks a judge to order the Winchester Water Control District to build a new fish ladder and make major repairs to Winchester Dam, which dates to 1890 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The dam is one of the oldest in Oregon.
Two of the key plaintiffs in the case are WaterWatch of Oregon, which has offices in Portland and Ashland, and the Steamboaters, a group of fly fishing conservationists with a membership close to 160 worldwide.
The suit alleges that the dam is in such a state of disrepair that it threatens several species of fish — including the federally protected coho salmon — as they migrate to their spawning grounds on the North Umpqua River.
The Winchester Dam last year was classified as a “high hazard” facility as it pertains to fish species navigating its fish ladder.
Tim Goforth, who has served as president of the Steamboaters for the past five years, said the dam is the second-highest ranked privately owned dam on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fish passage priority list.
“The ladder is poorly constructed,” Goforth said. “Between the state of the dam and the ladder, there are a lot of leaks. There are major flows out of those leaks (in the passage ladder) and the fish are attracted to those.
“Instead of following the ladder, the fish are attracted to those leaks, and they jump out of the ladder and slam into the dam.”
Goforth and Jim McCarthy, of WaterWatch of Oregon, said those “false attraction flows” are the direct result of a lack of comprehensive maintenance on the dam and its fish ladder.
The structure created what is now a private lake, as control of the dam was handed over to local residents who formed the Winchester Water Control District in 1969.
Orville Houston, 89, is one of the residents who lives on both the north and south banks of the North Umpqua and makes up the WWCD. Houston, who lives along the south bank of the river, said that removing the dam could cause more damage to fish and their migration than making repairs.
“It would be more of a hardship on the fish if the dam wasn’t there,” Houston said. “(The dam) isn’t hurting anything, other than people don’t like it for some reason.”
Ryan Beckley, the president of the WWCD, said in a press release that adjustments had already been made to bring the fish ladder into compliance with federal standards established in the 1990s, including an unrequired “underflow” fish passage option from one level of the ladder to the next.
“What I find most ironic about the fish ladder argument is that the current configuration of the ladder seems to be providing a unique protection that none of the so-called environmental activist groups seem to want to discuss,” Beckley said in the release. “The North Umpqua River above the dam is literally the only part of the Umpqua River system that has not become overrun by smallmouth bass, a non-native and highly predatory species that is widely known to have decimated salmon, trout and steelhead populations.”
The Winchester Dam was constructed in 1890. According to an email from Beckley, the dam has not been a source of power generation since 1923.
Beckley wrote that the introduction of smallmouth bass into primarily the mainstem and South Umpqua River systems became such an issue for salmon and trout migration that it prompted state officials to lift harvest restrictions on the bass.
In 2018, a large whirlpool emerged along the southern edge of the dam due to concrete damage near the base of the 17-foot-high structure. According to both Goforth and McCarthy, the WWCD attempted to make the necessary repairs, but those efforts resulted in fresh concrete pouring into the river and impacting the current migrations of coho, summer steelhead and lamprey eels.
In his statement, Beckley conceded that with the age of the dam, “it does require maintenance. Engineering, budgeting, permitting and financing are all concerns that are currently being addressed and will be discussed with the WWCD when appropriate.”
For the resident WWCD members who live upriver from the dam, a nominal annual fee provides them with their own personal water recreation area. The dam, which is registered as a national historic landmark, is one of the most photographed landmarks in Douglas County.
An estimated 80,000 people visit the fish viewing station annually.
The dam is a local treasure to some, but a sizable hurdle to fisheries — depending on who you ask.
“The people who have made the backwater of the Winchester Dam their home are the ones that truly care the most about the North Umpqua River,” Beckley wrote, “and I know that each and every one of us wants the safest possible dam, the most effective and efficient fish passage and the best possible opportunity for the community, biologists and conservationists to study and learn about the salmon, trout and steelhead that pass safely through the fish ladder every year.”
Goforth said he would simply like to see the dam and its fish ladder repaired in accordance with federal guidelines.
“I just want to see the rule of law followed as far as maintenance,” Goforth said. “Just to have it be done legally and appropriately. Same with the fish ladder.
“Either fix it right or take it out.”