Holding Winchester Dam owners accountable

last updated June 17, 2024

Winchester Dam repairs in August 2023. Photo by Kirk Blaine, Native Fish Society

New case filed! Crag filed a motion for our clients to intervene in the ODFW’s enforcement case against the Winchester Dam Owners for killing over 500,000 juvenile lamprey in 2023. Photo by Kirk Blaine, Native Fish Society.

New case filed in ongoing efforts to hold Winchester dam owners accountable for botched dam repairs and massive lamprey kill-off

For over six years, Crag has represented a coalition of river advocates to hold Winchester Dam owners accountable for botched, unpermitted repairs in 2018 that famously spilled a lethal mix of green concrete and sediment into the pristine North Umpqua river during the migration of protected salmon. The coalition includes WaterWatch of Oregon, Steamboaters, Native Fish Society, Umpqua Watersheds, and The North Umpqua Foundation.

Background

Unfortunately, the owners of the 134-year old Winchester Dam have continued their legacy of botched dam repairs. In August 2023, when repairing the dam, they drained the reservoir water behind the dam so quickly, during the hot summer, that over 500,000 lamprey larvae died. As a result, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife is suing the dam owners for unlawful killing of wildlife, seeking $27.6 million in damages, as set by state law. Earlier this month, Crag filed for our clients to join the case as Intervenors on behalf of the river, water quality, fish, and wildlife.

A juvenile Pacific lamprey stranded in the mud in Winchester Reservoir. (Bob Hoehne, courtesy of Native Fish Society)

A juvenile Pacific lamprey stranded in the mud in Winchester Reservoir. Photo by Bob Hoehne, courtesy of Native Fish Society.

“Our clients have years of advocacy and engagement around Winchester Dam’s botched dam repairs, and several of them were direct witnesses to the devastating lamprey kill event last year. We asked to intervene in this case to join the state’s case holding the dam owners accountable and on behalf of the river, water quality, fish, and wildlife.

– Maura Fahey, Crag Managing Attorney

What’s at Stake

Native Fish

Winchester Dam is located in the North Umpqua River, which provides habitat for sensitive species like Chinook salmon, steelhead, Umpqua chub, Pacific lamprey, and Western Brook lamprey. Previous botched dam repairs occurred during the migration of protected salmon and directly caused the death of juvenile chinook salmon, juvenile steelhead, lamprey larvae, and mussels, in addition to significant water quality impacts. The sole purpose and function of the dam today is to provide a private recreational lake to about 100 landowners along the North Umpqua River, while at the same time impeding native fish migration and posing a threat to the downstream community.

Traditional Foods

Pacific Lamprey are an important traditional food and culturally significant species for many Native Tribes and indigenous communities throughout Oregon and the Umpqua River Basin. The Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians has traditional fishing grounds in the vicinity of the Winchester Dam. Members of the Cow Creek Band’s Natural Resources division assisted in salvage efforts at Winchester Dam during dam repair and the Band has issued a statement in support of the State’s lawsuit to hold the dam owners accountable for the Lamprey kill. Shared Lindsay Campman, a spokesperson for the tribe, “We are invested in this situation and what happens on the north Umpqua and Winchester Dam because of the lamprey and all of those species that are just so critical to Cow Creek lifeways.”

Community Action

The river advocates intervening in this case are part of a larger coalition of twenty-two fishing, conservation and whitewater groups working to end ongoing harm to the North Umpqua from Winchester Dam. As part of this effort, the coalition has urged government officials to take action against the Winchester dam owner’s 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.

Our Clients

We are proud to represent our clients in this case:

    • WaterWatch of Oregon has worked since 1985 to protect and restore flows in our rivers to sustain native fish, wildlife, and the people who depend on healthy rivers. To ensure the legacy of healthy rivers in Oregon, they keep regulators accountable, speak for the public interest, pass balanced water legislation and go to court. 
    • Steamboaters works tirelessly to protect the fragile North Umpqua River in Oregon. Their mission is to preserve, promote, and restore the natural production of wild fish populations, especially steelhead, the habitat which sustains them, and the unique aesthetic values of the North Umpqua River for present and future generations. 
    • Native Fish Society exists to cultivate a groundswell of public support needed to revive abundant wild, native fish. Guided by the best available science, they advocate for the protection and recovery of wild, native fish and promote the stewardship of the habitats that sustain us all.
    • Umpqua Watersheds is a nonprofit founded in 1986 dedicated to the protection and restoration of the ecosystems of the Umpqua watershed and beyond through education, training, advocacy and ecologically sound stewardship.
    • The North Umpqua Foundation is a nonprofit founded in 1983 by anglers and concerned citizens that advocates river conservation. They inform, educate, and support research projects to protect and serve the North Umpqua River basin. 

Looking ahead

We are waiting for the Douglas County Circuit Court to decide whether we can be parties to the case. If we are accepted, we will support the state’s case to hold the dam owners accountable. 

There are also three other separate state agency actions holding the dam owners accountable for violations of water quality, dam safety, and water storage issues. Crag and our clients are continuing to monitor these cases for future opportunities to protect fish and wildlife.

The August 2023 dam repairs were the third major renovations at the 134-year-old dam in the last decade. All three times, the work was poorly executed and harmed aquatic species and habitat, according to state agencies and conservation groups. Photo by Kirk Blaine, Native Fish Society.

Resources

To read about our earlier case holding Winchester Dam owners accountable for 2018 botched repairs, read our case post here.

For recent media coverage, read here:

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