Unlawful Botched Repairs At Winchester Dam
By Danica Leung
Winchester Dam is located on the famously clear North Umpqua River, and is a crucial area for fish passage and the nearby Roseburg community. However, the river became polluted after a botched dam repair in October 2018 by longtime contractor, Basco Logging Inc. During the repair work, a large sediment plume from cofferdam construction and wet concrete washout polluted the river downstream of the dam. The discharged sediment into the river caused turbidity levels to spike 7650% over background levels. The discharged wet concrete into the river caused a visible plume extending one third of a mile downstream.
In January 2020, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a Notice of Civil Penalty and levied a $58,378 fine for pollution to the company responsible for the repair, Basco Logging Inc. Crag is representing a coalition of fishing and conservation organizations to intervene in the DEQ enforcement action to hold Basco Logging accountable for noncompliance with state and federal repair permitting and water quality requirements.
Basco Logging admits to violating regulations, but argues that the fine ought to be thrown out because dam repairs are “exempt” from Oregon’s remove-fill law for dam maintenance. They also argue that the DEQ has no authority to issue penalties for lands under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Department of State Lands.
However, our clients provided clear and abundant evidence of unlawful waste and sediment discharge in North Umpqua, and in January 2021, an Oregon administrative law judge struck down arguments from Basco Logging and concluded that DEQ has authority over the water quality violations caused by the unlawful dam repair. The case will now proceed to a formal hearing in July.
What's at Stake
Winchester Dam is located just 50 ft upstream from Roseburg’s public drinking water intake. The history of botched repairs and leakage contaminated the primary drinking water source for the city of Roseburg and the Umpqua Basin Water Association, which serve almost 37,700 people.
Moreover, state records indicate that dam owners have at times repaired the dam with large numbers of pressure treated wood planks, against the recommendations of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Department of Human Services (DHS). The EPA website states that the “treatment process and the use of treated-products can result in exposure to pesticides for both people and the environment”.
Wildlife + Native Fish
Winchester Dam is located within state-designated Essential Salmonid Habitat and federally-designated critical habitat for threatened Oregon Coast Coho salmon. The dam impedes access to 160 miles of high quality salmon and steelhead habitat in the North Umpqua River. The botched repairs occurred during the migration of protected salmon and directly caused the death of juvenile chinook salmon, juvenile steelhead, lamprey larvae, and mussels. The dam also compromises the habitat for sensitive species like Chinook salmon, steelhead, Umpqua chub, Pacific lamprey, and Western Brook lamprey.
Winchester Dam was originally constructed in 1890 to provide the local Roseburg area with hydroelectric power. Today, however, it is maintained exclusively for the private, recreational benefit of about 200 landowners in the surrounding reservoir pool. It is currently owned, operated and maintained by the Winchester Water Control District.
Since the early 1990s, Basco Logging – the company of former president and current director of the Winchester Water Control District – has been the longtime primary contractor for Winchester Dam to perform in-water repairs to holes and leaks. The dam has been in a state of disrepair and leakage for over thirty years. While repairs have occurred on average once every three years since the 1960s, public records indicate that no permits have been issued for those repairs.
In October 2018, a botched, unpermitted repair at Winchester Dam spilled a lethal mix of green concrete and sediment into the North Umpqua river. This repair occurred despite authorities providing dam owners with information in advance on the best practices to protect water quality and fish. This is not the first time repairs have gone wrong. According to public record, there was also leakage during one previous repair, and a state official complained to a contractor about the cement discharged into the river and repairs that had been done without permits. Before the January 2020 DEQ fine, there are no records of fines or other consequences for this regular, extensive and unpermitted in-water work.
An administrative law judge upheld the DEQ fine and noted that there was “an abundance of evidence” to support allegations of unlawful waste discharge into the North Umpqua, as well as “very persuasive photographic evidence showing highly visible sediment discharge originating from the dam repair activities”.
Crag Law Center represents WaterWatch of Oregon, Steamboaters, Native Fish Society, Umpqua Watersheds, and Oregon Wild in advocating against Winchester Dam’s dangerous repair practices. These groups are part of a broader coalition of local and statewide fishing, conservation, and whitewater organizations that are working to bring Winchester Dam into compliance with state and federal laws regarding species protection, dam safety, and water quality.
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.
Oregon Wild has worked since to inform and involve the public in the important conservation issues facing our state. America’s wildlands, wildlife, and waters belong to all of us, and they believe that the best way to ensure these precious resources are managed responsibly is to keep the public informed.
Read WaterWatch’s article about the case