Invasive, warmwater smallmouth bass

One of the most pervasive myths about the Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River is that the dam keeps smallmouth bass from passing through the dam’s fish ladder.

On September 12, 2023, Meghan Dugan, the Public Affairs Officer at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, stated that ODFW staff have, in fact, counted smallmouth passing through the Winchester Dam fish ladder. Dugan confirmed that the Winchester Dam does not prevent smallmouth bass from traveling upriver. 

This is not really surprising since smallmouth bass are non-native, warmwater fish. The water stored behind the Winchester Dam is warmer than the wild river upstream, and it attracts invasive warmwater species like the smallmouth bass.

What is surprising is that, although ODFW admits smallmouth bass do, in fact, pass through the fish ladder at the Winchester Dam – they don’t publish this fact. Likewise, they do not publish the smallmouth bass count at Winchester Dam. Curiously, they do publish the counts of suckers, pike minnows, and lamprey at the Winchester Dam. 

ODFW makes a concerted effort to do their part maintaining the “Winchester Dam Keeps Out Smallmouth Bass” mythology that allows the WWCD to keep their private water ski lake, and this is why ODFW doesn’t publish the counts of smallmouth bass at the dam.

This is called “collusion.” Merriam Webster defines collusion as a “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.”

Many people, including Ryan Beckley, president of the Winchester Water Control Group that owns the Winchester Dam, deliberately repeats the myth over and over again that the Winchester Dam prevents invasive species like smallmouth bass from swimming upstream.

“It appears as though the Winchester Dam and its fish ladder, in its current configuration, is keeping out only smallmouth bass” Beckley told KPIC channel 4 in Roseburg, Oregon, on December 3, 2020.

ODFW admits that this is patently false.

And Beckley has the dubious distinction of singlehandedly perpetrating the largest fish kill on an Oregon River in 2023 (so perhaps his statements are simply ingenuous and self-serving) which incurred an unprecedented $27.5 million fine.

ODFW now admits that the Winchester Dam doesn’t not keep out invasive species like smallmouth bass.

Water temperature – wild, cold, undammed river water is a natural deterrent to warm water invasive plant and fish species. The cold river water effectively kept invasive fish from swimming up the North Umpqua River for hundreds of thousands of years before the construction of the Winchester Dam. And it will do so again the minute the Winchester Dam is removed.

The Winchester Water Control District (WWCD) and the Winchester Dam exist solely to maintain a private water ski lake on a the wild and scenic North Umpqua River – at the exclusion of the public. And the ODFW is doing their level best to come to the aid of the WWCD, instead of the fish, the downstream residents, or the community at large, at the expense of the taxpayers.

The Oregon Water Resource District (OWRD) condemned the Winchester Dam in 1976. The dam is rated a “high hazard,” meaning “the department expects loss of human life if the dam fails.”

Since WWCD board of directors doesn’t have a good reason to oppose the removal of the condemned and “high hazard” Winchester Dam, they are left with no alternative but to spout falsehoods – like telling people that the Winchester Dam keeps out the smallmouth bass. 

This is about money and privilege.

Some of the WWCD members are reluctant to come right out and admit that they’re loathe to give up their private waterski lake. They believe their recreational indulgences are more important than public safety, water quality, the native fisheries, or the local economy. They believe that they are entitled to this preferential treatment from the Oregon Department Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Water resource Department.

So, when they tell you that the Winchester Dam keeps smallmouth bass from swimming up the North Umpqua River, don’t buy it. They are grasping at straws.

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