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.”

Donovan Brink can be reached at dbrink@nrtoday.com and 541-957-4219.

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Cops and Courts Reporter

Donovan Brink is the cops and courts reporter for The News-Review.

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(18) comments

Harlem

Mike, your 11/29/20 comment about Mr. Beckley is, in my opinion, misguided. I know Mr. Beckley have found him to be truthful, sincere and committed to helping our community.

Mike

That doesn't entitle him to the right to claim his members, "are the ones that truly care the most about the North Umpqua River.” Please prove to everyone they care more than I.

Momos

Almost always in the summer, low flow. Many times. Back down as far as you can, and winch it on. Never with a motor. Don't let the truck break over the hump, and have a good winch line. Drift boats are truly amazing, but it's easy to get into trouble. "The Habit Of Rivers" by Ted Leeson is the best river/fishing/drift boat book I've read. Mr. Leeson teaches at OSU.

Mike

I recently sold my drift boat. My winch line wouldn't have been long enough to drag it across the rocks.

Momos

I've pulled drift boats, kayaks and rafts out on Page Road many times. It's a long float from Whistlers Bend Park, and you'd better know how to get around Dixon Creek Falls. I've had numerous private places in between to launch over the years. Fairly easy take out for a drift boat compared to some places we've been.

Mike

Maybe so in the winter when the water is high, but have you been able to take out a drift boat there in the summer when the water's low?

mynamehere

The boat ramp on page road used to allow power boats to be launched. Then it seemed that the residents behind the dam were upset that "other boaters" were interfering with their water skiing activities so they manged to get the county to change the law and put in an ordinance that prevents power boats from launching from the Page Road boat ramp.

Mike

I've kayaked from Whistler's Park to the Page Road boat ramp and can say with certainty there is no boat ramp at the Page Road boat ramp. It is actually a high bank that is difficult for kayaks and rafts to take out. I can not imagine any other type of boat utilizing that spot for either putting in or taking out.

When the river flow is low in the summer, it would be impossible for a power boat to put-in and take-out. The lake residents have created their own private lake funded by the rest of us taxpayers.

Momos

"An estimated 80,000 people visit the fish viewing station annually."

That's an average of 219 people every single day. Do they have a people counter installed, or is this someone's guess? Sounds exaggerated to me. Yeah, and their bass argument is pure nonsense. As always, follow the money. Decreased property values, millions to repair or remove the dam, taxpayer funded solutions, expensive lawyers, etc. Big money Republican donors live on the lake, let's see if our commissioners rush to their defense.

NJ

Good informative article. The most important point is that there is now an invasive species of fish that is decimating trout and salmon from the dam westward in our Umpqua river. That should be the first issue addressed.

Next is that it seems to be the American way to build infrastructure and make no provision for maintaining it over the course of the next 100, 200, or more years. Ultimately it degrades. According to Beckley it's in compliance with federal standards and the real issue is that both the Winchester Water Control District and Water Watch of Oregon have chosen to take their debate, time, and money into federal court rather than come together to reach a healthy solution. They waste resources and push any solution down the road as it languishes in the court. Once (and if) the federal court reaches a solution for the two groups, any funding for any repair or replacement would take a generation if left up to the slow as molasses Department of the Interior.

Should it be decided to do any improvement either of the groups would like, will that handle the real issue of the north Umpqua - that of eliminating small mouth bass from the river? No.

First things first fellas. Work together to address the small mouth bass issue in our river. And please stop the petty "we don't like you for no good reason" issues between your personalities, they're useless and disappointing.

Mike

The small mouth bass issue is a wild herring. To believe a small mouth could not navigate a fish ladder when a lamprey, cutthroat trout, salmon and steelhead species are currently doing so is far fetched and grasping at straws for reasons to keep the dam.

The real reason small mouthed bass have not populated the upper reaches of the North Umpqua river is due to water temperature. Because the North Umpqua is spring fed, it is as much as 30 degrees cooler in the summer than the South Umpqua. The small mouthed bass prefer the significantly warmer water of the South Umpqua and the Main. Hence, the barrier to small mouthed bass in the North Umpqua is water temperature, NOT the Winchester Dam. It is this same cooler water that is desired by the lamprey, trout, salmon and steelhead.

It is likely that removing the dam will actually reduce the chance of small mouth bass migrating up the North Umpqua by further lowing the temperature of the lower North Umpqua before it enters the main. During the summer, the North Umpqua water temperature below the dam is warmer than the water flowing into the lake above the dam. This is because collected water warms in the lake above the dam. By removing the dam, cooler water desired by non small mouthed species would be allowed to flow unimpeded to the main Umpqua.

NJ

First, let me say to you Mike that I have complete respect for your knowledge and your perseverance in presenting it. You've provided good information but here's what troubles me about it. There's not a lot of information on Maidu Lake which ultimately feeds the Umpqua River. It's the word "likely" you use that's concerning. One could say it's likely that global warming/climate change will affect the temperature of Maidu Lake and the upper Umpqua, just as it's likely that we'll have more power outages from snow storms this winter, and it's likely we'll all be breathing wildfire smoke again next summer. We simply don't know and there doesn't appear to be any scientific study that ventures into how a warming planet will affect fresh water temperatures over the long haul.

The small mouth bass issue may have to be addressed by bass anglers who should forego catch and release and begin to harvest them for commercial sale. Could be 100 years from now if small mouth bass decimate other fish species in the Umpqua it's likely people Will begin to eat them. We need more bright scientific minds to invest in how the Umpqua will be affected in the future.

Mike

To be clear, I'm a fishing fiend. I fish for all kinds at least 3 days per week. With that said, the only fish I keep is smallmouth bass. And I keep a lot of them in my quest for the state record. In fact, you can find me floating the South or Main in my pontoon most days of the summer.

Thin sliced fried bass baja style make the best fish tacos. Way better than any of the other Umpqua fish. Leftovers make great fish sandwiches the next day. You can ask my neighbors who used to come over for lunch or dinner before COVID. Besides fried, I also smoke and pickle bass to give to my friends and neighbors. Though I catch and release lots of Steelhead and Salmon, both my wife and I prefer fried bass. Bass also make great crab bait. And the eagles and ospreys love to take them off the water next to your boat.

Regarding "likely," please point to something in nature that is guaranteed without unintended consequences. Regarding "scientific minds," I remind you it wasn't that long ago we got rid of paper bags to save the trees. The paper bags were replaced with single use plastic bags which now have likewise been banned and we've returned back to paper bags. I don't mean to dispel science. I am indeed an advocate of science, as long as its for the sake of science and NOT contaminated by business interests, which so often happens.

Your first step to harvesting smallmouth bass should be talking to the many fishing guides who are almost entirely catch and release. I understand why the guides want big bass in the river for their customers. However there are at least 50 bass under 1 lb that are caught for every bass over 2 lbs. If the guides kept all bass under 1 lb and released only those over 2 lbs, that would go a long way towards helping the salmon and steelhead smolts.

Mike

By the way, I use a 5" topwater jerk bait that looks just like a salmon smolt to catch most of my bass, often over 100 per day. Many of the bass I catch are smaller than the lure. That gives you an idea of how aggressive the bass are.

NJ

It seems as though the NR won't allow conversation as my only option to your comments on the 1st, is to "report" you rather than "add reply". Not that you'll see this, but in the spirit of conversation I'm replying anyway.

Seems as though you're a fishing fiend. I haven't fished in 40 years, but the last time I did, I pulled a huge large mouth bass out of the McKenzie and surprise, cooked it up in butter and chili powder similar to the way you and the Mrs. do. I agree, it's some of the best eats I've had.

You asked me to point to something in nature that is guaranteed without unintended consequences. The only thing I can think of is that every living thing in the animal kingdom dies. Not trying to be sarcastic it just happens naturally for me. It seems to me that if you're the fishing fiend you're the best person advocate for not releasing under 2 lb. small mouth bass back into the river. Mine is a much more simple response in that when I see the words invasive species, a huge red flag pops up and wags back and forth. It just seems more important to me to address that first.

I take no side in this debate, but I do find it interesting the opinions of both sides and how they're presented by drips and drabs in their reporting to the public. We get new information with each article and have to wonder if that's by accident or design.

Logistically, if the dam is removed, colder water flows further down the Umpqua pushing small mouth bass with it, wouldn't that mean you'd have to travel further to catch them? And if small mouth bass make good crab bait... so does half a raw chicken and I'm pretty sure chickens will never become an invasive species in the Umpqua estuary. Please excuse my sarcasm, it's meant only in the best of humor. Please don't respond with any more comments about how good bass in when cooked with butter and chili powder because that's just cruel. [beam]

Mike

I only meant the crab bait comment as another justification to harvest smallmouth bass.

Mike

Who pays for the $MILLIONS spent rebuilding/repairing the Winchester Dam every few years for the SOLE benefit of members of the Winchester Water Control District. Am I and other taxpayers on the hook to pay for those $Millions or does the Water Control District pay the entire cost?

Mike

Winchester Water Control District president Ryan Beckley untruthfully said, “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.”

The credibility of Mr. Beckley and the elitist Water Control District members he represents took a huge blow because of Mr. Beckley's ridiculous statement. He sounds like Trump and his false voting fraud claims. I live on the North Umpqua River. I’ve never met Mr. Beckley. How can he judge my devotion to the North Umpqua without ever having met me? I challenge Mr. Beckley to he cares more than I do.

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