Curt Melcher, Director of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

On October 6, 2023, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fined the Winchester Water Control District, owners of the condemned Winchester Dam on Douglas County’s North Umpqua River, $27.6 million for violating their August 2023 repair permit and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of native migratory fish.

But the record-breaking fish kill at the Winchester Dam this summer was no accident.

It would not have been possible if not for the willful and deliberate efforts of Oregon Department Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) personnel to intercede in the normal permit process on behalf of the members of the Winchester Water Control District (WWCD), the owners of the long-ago condemned Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River – the number one steelhead Stream in North America (and some say in the world).

At a December 16, 2022 meeting, ODFW Commissioners approved changes in laws pertaining to dam repair (635-412-0005) requiring that, effective January 1, 2023, if a dam is in need of “repairs, patches, or modifications to over 30% of the area of the upstream, downstream, or top base of the dam (measured above the natural ground gradeline that is used to impound water),” ODFW must reevaluate both the dam and its fish ladder and the owners must bring both up to current code compliance.

Ryan Beckley, president of the WWCD, and his fellow board members were fully aware that the crumbling Winchester Dam, which was condemned by the Oregon Water Resource Department in 1976, required repairs well in excess of 30% of its structure. They knew that a reassessment of the dam by state agencies would force them to remove the crumbing dam or build a new multi-million-dollar fish ladder.  

And Ryan Beckley’s chums at ODFW knew this, as well.

In an abundance of self-interest, Ryan Beckley awarded the August 2023 dam repair contract to a company he owns, TerraFirma Foundations Systems. Naturally, Ryan Beckley wanted to spend as little of the $3 million dam repair budget as possible, so he could finance a $200,000 remodel on his $2 million home in West Linn, Oregon, and enjoy an extended vacation in Europe while his house was under construction – which he did.

Ryan Beckley’s building permit for a $211,185.20 remodel of his West Linn, Oregon residence.

And so, in flagrant disregard of safety code compliant, concern for water quality, and fisheries best management practices, Beckley’s buddies at ODFW went out of their way – during the Christmas holidays, no less – to exempt Ryan Beckley and his rich WWCD cronies from the very laws ODFW enacted to prevent ecological disasters. Inexplicably and indefensibly, ODFW granted Beckley a temporary permit on December 28, 2022 – 72 hours before the new law took effect, so Beckley and his WWCD co-conspirators could skirt the January 1, 2023, policy changes.

Why in the world would a state agency whose mandate reads “Protecting and enhancing Oregon’s fish and wildlife, and the habitats they use, for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations is at the heart of what we do” want to facilitate WWCD’s exemption from laws that protect water quality, fisheries, and public safety? 

ODFW did this so a few dozen rich homeowners wouldn’t be forced to remove the crumbling dam that was condemned in 1976, that creates the WWCD’s 7,500-foot long private water ski lake on a public river and provides no hydropower, irrigation, or flood control.

ODFW colluded with Ryan Beckley and the WWCD to evade the very regulations ODFW enacted to prevent catastrophes like the unprecedented fish kill on the North Umpqua in August 2023. 

Curt Melcher, director of ODFW, is personally responsible for allowing this disaster to occur. 

Melcher and his underlings willfully and deliberately bent over backwards to facilitate Ryan Beckley’s slaughter of more than 500,000 native fish, killing off as many as seven generations of Pacific lamprey, which spend up to seven years in the river mud before migrating to the ocean.

This is the same Curt Melcher, director of ODFW, who insisted when the dams were removed on the Rogue River, that fish passage could not be blocked for one minute. And yet, inexplicably Melcher allowed total blockage of fish passage on the North Umpqua River for 30 consecutive days. during one of the hottest summers on record.

Residents of Douglas County, Oregon, want to know why their river is unfairly exempt from the laws and regulations ODFW stringently enforces on all Oregon rivers. They want to know why their river – the number one steelhead stream in North America – receives this “preferential treatment.”

According to ODFW’s website, Melcher, a native Oregonian, “is passionate about the conservation of Oregon’s natural resources and is an avid hunter and angler.” If this is true, how could Melcher have allowed these violations of WWCD’s dam repair permit to occur?

Now ODFW has fined the WWCD and their contractors $27.6 million for what ODFW admits is the biggest fish kill of the year. However, the irony of this monetary judgement is not wasted on the residents of Douglas County. They know that Curt Melcher is the guy who made it all possible. 

The public watched in horror as their worst expectations were fulfilled, before dam repairs had even begun, as Ryan Beckley drained the WWCD’s private water ski lake twelve times faster than “two inches per minute” specified in his permit and devastated aquatic habitat downstream.

Within a week, Beckley succeeded in singlehandedly killing more than a half a million migratory native fish. And the taxpayers picked up the tab for salvage operation. It will literally be years before the aquatic habitat and the native fish populations recover from this thoughtless and inept catastrophe.

And no doubt, ODFW will have to close yet another fishing season on the North Umpqua River in August 2024, as they did in 2021 and 2023. The fish count at Winchester Dam this year was the lowest since they began keeping records of fish counts there in 1946. And the calamity at Winchester Dam this summer only further exacerbates the problem of dwindling fish populations.

Don’t be surprised when ODFW allows Ryan Beckley and WWCD to appeal the $27.6 million fine and ODFW responds by exponentially reducing the dollar amount, as state agencies have done in the past when WWCD incurred monetary penalties resulting from their egregious recurring violations of state and federal permits.

The members of the WWCD are repeat offenders. If these were moving violations, the DMV would have revoked their license decades ago.

Every time repairs are attempted at the condemned and crumbling Winchester Dam, hundreds of thousands of native fish are killed, and the public drinking water source for 37,700 people – one third of the population of Douglas County –  which is 50-feet downstream from the dam, is contaminated with toxic pressure-treated 2 x 12” boards that leach copper, arsenic, and chromium, and creosote-treated lumber, a “probable human carcinogen” prohibited “for use in contact with food, feed, or drinking water.”

The August 2023 disaster at Winchester Dam couldn’t have happened if ODFW was working on behalf of the taxpayers who fund their agency, instead of colluding with Ryan Beckley – the undisputed 2023 Oregon Fish Kill Champion. 

For more than 40 years, ODFW, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and the Oregon Water Resource Department have gone of their way to overlook and encouraged WWCD’s worst crimes:

• Contamination of the public drinking water source

• The needless killing of millions of migratory native fish

• The storage of water in excess of legal allotment 

• Operating a water district out of compliance with regulations

• Privatizing a public river and boat ramp. 

And all of ODFW’s highly questionable actions were undertaken solely to ensure that a few dozen rich property owners could hold on to the most illegal and dangerous private water ski lake in Oregon, behind a “high hazard” dam that was condemned in 1976. 

Many Douglas County residents believe that ODFW is as culpable as Ryan Beckley and the WWCD for this unprecedented disaster. This tragedy occurred because ODFW colluded with Ryan Beckley and the WWCD.

ODFW failed to prevent the biggest fish kill of the year because they were too busy helping Ryan Beckley skirt ODFW’s own regulations, so he wouldn’t have to spend any money complying with the law. 

ODFW conspired to assist the rich property owners who are now defendants in a $27.6 million lawsuit – one of the biggest cases the State of Oregon has ever mounted against private dam owners and their criminally incompetent contractors.

Curt Melcher’s $158,914.50 salary is paid by the taxpayers. His apparent collusion should be investigated.

Curt Melcher made possible the further degradation of the number one steelhead stream in North America. He facilitated the biggest fish kill of the year and did his part to ensure the condemned and crumbling Winchester Dam would remain a ticking time bomb waiting to explode upon the unsuspecting downstream residents of Roseburg in the next major flood or earthquake.