The North Umpqua River provides fly fishers with unparalleled opportunities to connect with  wild salmon and steelhead. It is truly one of the best fly fishing rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Whereas many of the historic salmon and steelhead rivers of the West Coast are degraded and fragmented, the North Umpqua still provides more than 160 miles of pristine aquatic habitat.

However, this river does not flow freely, and anadromous fish have several barriers to accessing the quality upriver habitat. Roughly seven miles from the main branch of the Umpqua River, Winchester Dam blocks 160 miles of quality fish habitat on the North Umpqua. The dam is decades old and threatens both humans and migrating fish. The state of Oregon classifies the dam as “high hazard” to human life in the event of a failure. For fish, the dam is even worse; the outdated dam has deteriorated, which creates false flows, essentially funneling outmigrating fish into a blender of rusted rebar and concrete. Further, the dam is equipped with a grossly ineffective fish ladder that is harmful to migrating fish.

To make matters worse, the dam serves a very limited purpose. Winchester Dam generates no power and serves no flood control purpose. Rather, it provides slack-water above the dam for the private riparian property owners–and them only–to recreationally boat on the ‘lake’. The property owners for years have mismanaged the dam, including a failed attempt to repair the structure in 2018 which polluted the drinking water for 37,000 people and harmed numerous fish.

That is why a coalition of environmental and fishing groups joined forces to sue the dam’s Water District. The coalition is requesting the District Court Judge order major repairs to the privately-owned dam and require significant improvements to the harmful fish ladder. However, because the dam does not produce any income for the owners, removing the dam would make the most financial sense.

Winchester Dam, courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

“Winchester Water Control District’s fish-killing, dangerous, and obsolete dam provides no flood control, hydropower, or water supply function except to back up the river for a private waterski lake. It’s long past time to end the needless harm this dam causes to invaluable natural resources,” said Jim McCarthy, Southern Oregon Program Director for WaterWatch.

This watershed is crucial to the struggling summer and winter steelhead, as well as coho and chinook salmon. Decrepit and non-power generating dams, like this one, left upright are irresponsible and only harm native species. Winchester Dam should come down, or at the least be repaired. For more on this developing story, check out this press release from WaterWatch of Oregon and this Native Fish Society story.

Photos courtesy of Arian Stevens.

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