WINCHESTER, Ore. – Owners of the Winchester Dam have filed court documents in hopes of dismissing a lawsuit claiming the dam hurts fish.
In November 2020, WaterWatch of Oregon and three other groups – two of which are headquartered outside the state – filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court, alleging the 130-year-old dam needs big upgrades or should be removed completely in order to avoid violating the Endangered Species Act.
Ryan Beckley is board president of the Winchester Water Control District, which owns and operates the dam on behalf of property owners who live along the reservoir. He said he wasn’t entirely surprised when the lawsuit came across his desk. Beckley said this is part of a nationwide trend of organizations filing suit in an effort to remove dams from waterways.
“There is no legitimacy to their lawsuit. There just isn’t. They have radically taken out of context or mischaracterized just about every supposed fact,” Beckley said.
The lawsuit names the water control district as the defendant and claims in part that the dam hinders some coast coho salmon and steelhead from migrating upstream. Above the Winchester Dam is 160 miles of high-quality fish habitat thanks to the Cascade Range and high-elevation snowpack turned cool, late-season water.
WaterWatch places much of the blame for blocking that access on the dam’s fish ladder, which they say is not adequately allowing fish to move freely. If coast coho, an endangered species, were found to be hurting themselves on the dam, it would be in violation of the law.
“It’s illegal to maintain a dam that kills fish,” said Jim McCarthy of WaterWatch of Oregon.
McCarthy points to verified instances in which fish were harmed by holes in the dam and jagged edges. He said it’s part of a pattern of the district failing to keep up maintenance on the dam.
“They’re not repairing the fish ladder. They’re not taking the offer from us to remove the dam for free. What they’re trying to do is maintain the status quo,” McCarthy said.
But Beckley said repairs are made to the dam on a continual basis. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife verified that there have been problems with the dam and fish ladder in the past, but said fixes were made by the Winchester Water Control District when those problems came to light.
McCarthy said WaterWatch offered $10,000 to the dam owners to facilitate changes, but claims the offer was rebuffed.
However, ODFW said populations of fish passing through the dam have remained relatively steady since the 1940s. This complicates the claim that fish populations are struggling to move freely. But McCarthy doesn’t place much faith in state’s data, suggesting the numbers are less accurate as a result of budget cuts.
“One of the reasons we became interested in this dam is because fishermen are complaining the counts at the dam didn’t seem to have any relationship to the fish that they saw,” McCarthy said.
For homeowners along the reservoir, the lawsuit came as a surprise.
Bill Siling has lived on a property near the dam for decades, and once worked for ODFW as a fish counter at the dam.
“I was surprised when the lawsuit surfaced,” Siling said. “I really was not hearing about these problems circulating in the community.”
Siling said he doesn’t agree with many of the allegations made in the lawsuit, and he trusts the data collected by ODFW that shows consistent numbers of fish passing through the dam over the years.
WaterWatch also claims that the fish ladder does not meet current state standards.
Timothy Walters, Umpqua Watershed manager for ODFW, said it’s true that the ladder doesn’t meet current standards, but it also is not required to because those standards were created after the ladder was built.
“There has to be some kid of major event that would trigger a required upgrade to the ladder,” Walters said.
Such an event would only happen if the dam’s owners had to replace about 30% of the dam by volume or if there was a change in water rights.
In the meantime, Beckley has asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit against the dam outright.
“Do I want to spend a few hundred thousand dollars fighting a federal lawsuit that’s going to go on for a few years? I’d rather spend a few hundred thousand dollars improving the fish ladder, improving the dam,” Beckley said.