Dam repairs on North Umpqua River cause emergency lamprey salvage, concerns about steelhead
An estimated 50-60 staff from state and federal agencies and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians are attempting to salvage juvenile Pacific lamprey this week, after the reservoir behind Winchester Dam was drained to make way for repairs starting August 7. According to a spokesperson with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the emergency salvage effort involves removing juvenile lamprey from the shore and returning them to the North Umpqua River.
“We are definitely concerned about the juvenile Pacific lamprey in the substrates upstream of the reservoir. We are assisting with an emergency salvage,” said Michelle Dennehy, a spokesperson with ODFW.
The 16-foot-high wood and cement Winchester Dam sits alongside Interstate 5 near Roseburg, Oregon. Below it, the highway crosses the river on a bridge. Upriver from the dam, long, manicured grass lawns stretch down to the banks of the reservoir.
Starting on Monday, excavators and backhoes began assembling a makeshift road through the river rocks with large “supersacks” of sand and gravel so they could work on a few areas of the dam’s face where water has been seeping through the 133-year-old structure.
The current repair work includes reinforcing the dam face with concrete and steel, and filling voids in the dam with injected polyurethane foam. The repairs have frustrated environmentalists, who say temporarily closing the dam’s already outdated fish ladder will further stress fish species like steelhead, lamprey and Oregon Coast coho salmon, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. And they say the aging, privately owned dam on the North Umpqua River that primarily benefits local residents should not be allowed to exist in the first place.
“We have collapsing runs in the North Umpqua. We’d like to address some of the stresses on those fish to arrest that decline,” said Jim McCarthy, the Southern Oregon program director for WaterWatch, an environmental nonprofit focused on protecting rivers in Oregon.
Winchester Dam was built in 1890 to generate hydropower for the City of Roseburg. In 1969, the utility that owned it, PacifiCorp, decided it no longer wanted the dam. It was given to the 154 landowners who live around the banks of the resulting 1.7-mile long reservoir, which is used primarily for recreational activities, like water skiing.
Residents with the Winchester Water Control District, who own the dam, say they’re the best stewards of the river, and the repairs will help ensure the long-term health of the North Umpqua’s renowned upriver fishing habitat by keeping out invasive species that get stopped at the dam.
“My family has had a home here for three generations with this reservoir behind it. If it was harming fish, the people that live behind it would be the first ones to pony up,” said Ryan Beckley, the president of the Winchester Water Control District and the owner of TerraFirma Foundation Systems, the contractor repairing the dam.
Disputes about Winchester Dam are not new. In 2020, WaterWatch offered to remove it at no cost to the water district, in an effort to increase fish passage to 160 miles of the North Umpqua and its tributaries upriver. But the district declined the offer. It’s currently listed in the top two dozen dams on the ODFW 2019 statewide fish passage barrier priority list, which ranks barriers, like dams, according to those which are in need of improved fish passage. The dam is ranked second in the state for those which are privately owned.
“It's passing fish. But again, we also recognize that the dam is delaying migration. And that was one of the major reasons for moving it up on that statewide priority list,” said Greg Huchko, the Umpqua District fish biologist with the ODFW.
In late July, all angling on the North Umpqua River and its tributaries was closed by ODFW until December because of low numbers of returning wild summer steelhead. “Current counts of wild summer steelhead passing Winchester Dam are just under half the amount needed to expect meeting critical abundance for the year,” reads a press release from the department. Still, Huchko says the current three-week closure of the Winchester Dam fish ladder is not expected to have a “population scale” impact on returning steelhead, since the vast majority in that run should have already traveled up river. Construction permits for the project were approved by numerous agencies, including the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service. ODFW chose the Aug. 7-28 work window based on when construction would have the least impact on summer steelhead.
Anglers like Rich Zellman disagree. Zellman is a fishing guide on the North Umpqua and board member of the Steamboaters, a conservation group focused on the river, for which McCarthy is also a member.
“There's too few summer steelhead this year to even risk losing one of them,” Zellman said.
He said Huchko with ODFW released the 20 wild steelhead that the agency had in this year’s hatchery program back into the river because the run’s numbers were so low.
“That told me a lot,” Zellman said.
Fishermen like Zellman say the current three-week fish ladder closure to accommodate construction is too long and it could prevent migrating fish from traveling into the cold tributaries upriver. According to Huchko with ODFW, steelhead numbers are low this year because of a variety of factors, including unusually warm temperatures in the mainstem of the Umpqua River, increased predation from non-native striped bass and smallmouth bass and poor ocean conditions.
Beckley, the water district president, argues that the existence of the dam, and a fish ladder that some say is outdated, protects steelhead in the upriver habitat by keeping out predatory bass that can’t swim up the ladder.
Environmentalists like McCarthy also say the water district cuts corners on repairs and that it's not held to a high enough standard by public agencies. During the first week of dam repairs after water was drained from the reservoir, WaterWatch released an emergency press release about the Pacific lamprey, which they estimate is affecting “hundreds of thousands” of juveniles that live along the river’s muddy shores because too few staff had been hired to help remove them as reservoir levels were lowered.
Dennehy with ODFW said it will take time to determine the number of lamprey that have been killed.
When WaterWatch helped remove the similar sized Gold Ray Dam on the Rogue River in 2010, McCarthy says ODFW did not allow them to stop fish passage for any amount of time, let alone three weeks. He says agencies could have required the Winchester Water Control District to repair the dam in ways that are more friendly to fish species, even if they cost more.
“So, the question is not one of repair the dam or not. The question is repair the dam right or not. And what they chose is to repair the dam in a sloppy way that has the highest impact to the run. We thought that was inappropriate. We thought that was poor judgment on behalf of the agency,” McCarthy said.
When the water district did repairs on the Winchester Dam in 2018, the contractor at the time, Basco Logging, Inc., accidentally discharged sediment and wet concrete into the river, killing fish and violating water quality standards, including negatively affecting the downriver drinking water sources for the City of Roseburg and the Umpqua Basin Water Association. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued a civil penalty of $58,378 but Basco appealed DEQ’s fine and got it lowered to $19,517, according to a spokesperson for the agency.
The current work on the dam is expected to last until Aug. 28. Despite concerns from groups like WaterWatch and the Native Fish Society, no violations have been confirmed for the construction. Beckley, the contractor and water district president, says he will make sure the dam isn’t causing problems to fish on the North Umpqua River.
“I absolutely know that if I had any inclination or indication that it was doing damage, that the people that live here have the means and the resources to correct that and that we would,” he said.
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