The Oregon Water Resource Department (OWRD) rates the Winchester Dam a “high hazard” – the highest danger rating – meaning “the department expects loss of human life to occur if the dam fails.”

OWRD rated the dam condition as being “poor.

OWRD requires “high hazard” dams to be inspected annually and told the Winchester Water Control District (WWCD), the owners of the dam, that “consideration must be given to a permanent dam, the existing wooden dam being considered as temporary in nature … either reconstruction or removal of the dam would be necessary.”

A permanent cement dam would cost about $50 million – more than the 99 WWCD members – some of the wealthiest residents of Douglas County, Oregon – want to pay to retain their 7,500-foot long private water ski lake behind the dam.

OWRD instructed WWCD to “inspect the dam on a semiannual basis, once a year with the water drawn down.”

But OWRD only drained and inspected the Winchester Dam three times in 47 years – in 1976, 1987, and 2013. Each inspector reported serious deficiencies and reitterated the need for annual inspections. But the dam hasn’t had a comprehensive structural inspection since 1987, when it was determined that 10% of the dam wall was leaking. During that half century, the WWCD made the most inexpensive and ineffective repairs to the dam as possible.

After the 2013 inspection, OWRD found the dam’s up slope, crest and downslope were all described as “urgent dam safety issues – action now.” OWRD went on to say that “The dam’s condition rating has been downgraded to poor and may be downgraded further to unsatisfactory if the dam safety issues are not addressed in the very near future.”

And yet, a decade later, neither Phil Ward, Director of OWRD nor WWCD has taken any action to protect the downstream residents and the general public.

The large concrete southern abutment of the Winchester Dam is the location of the old powerhouse from the bygone days, sixty years ago, when the dam was hydroelectric. Most people don’t know that the contractors never excavated all the way down to the bedrock beneath the southern abutment and so the concrete was poured on top of sediment and mud. 

Consequently, for decades the forceful river current has excavated beneath the concrete, creating huge holes under the dam that have been leaking for half a century. Fearing for their own safety, scuba divers hired to inspect the damage refused to go anywhere near the leak for fear they’d be sucked into the hole

These holes beneath the dam’s foundation created a whirlpool [see photo below] in the private water ski lake behind the dam. So, WWCD haphazardly dropped sandbags onto the suspected upstream leak in an attempt to plug the hole.

Sandbags piled on top of the huge hole under the Winchester Dam

When this didn’t stop the leak, WWCD (and the agencies that approve its permits) were conveniently forced into yet another “emergency” situation. Despite the obvious conflict of interests, in 2018, Basco Logging, Inc. owned by WWCD board member Juan Yraguen, was hired to drain the lake and repair the leak. 

Predictably, Yraguen, a contractor with no dam repair qualifications, botched the job and polluted the North Umpqua resulting in a fish kill recorded by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

In an October 19, 2019, letter to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Yraguen claimed that “the repair of the hydraulic leak under the gate/south powerhouse structure has been permanently resolved.” 

But this statement was false.

According to state dam safety officials, “…we observed a whirlpool near the old powerhouse. The location of the whirlpool was a few feet upstream from where the sink hole was observed during the 2018 inspection that led to the October 2018 repair work.”

Ironically, in 2018, the same state agencies that continue to allow Ryan Beckley to repair the Winchester Dam without proper permits were forced to slap WWCD’s previous contractor, Basco Logging, Inc.,  – owned by yet another WWCD board member Juan Yraguen – with a $58,378 fine for pouring pollutants and cement into the river that entered the public drinking water system and killed a lot of lampreys, steelhead, and salmon.

When Yraguen appealed the fine, DEQ inexplicably lowered it from $58,378 to $19,517, setting another terrible precedent.

Decisions of this kind only serve to encourage and embolden bad actors like Juan Yraguen and Ryan Beckley – both of whom are WWCD board members.

The August 2023 repairs of the Winchester Dam resulted in the biggest fish kill on an Oregon river this year – hundreds of thousands of native fish were needlessly slaughtered. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife slapped the dam repair contractors and the WWCD with a $27.6 million fine.

The only way to protect downstream residents is to remove the Winchester Dam.

Bring down the dam. Bring back the fish and the jobs.