In 1976, the Oregon Water Resource Department (OWRD) condemned the 133-year-old Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River in Douglas County, Oregon.

However, as a result of ongoing collusion between the OWRD and the Winchester Water Control District (WWCD), the owners of the Winchester Dam, the long-ago condemned dam is still standing. 

In an ongoing pattern of preferential treatment and unequal application of state regulations and laws, the OWRD has gone out of its way to keep the derelict dam in place so that a few dozen wealthy WWCD members are able to hold on to the most illegal and dangerous private water ski lake in Oregon.

The OWRD rated the Winchester Dam a “high hazard,” the highest danger rating possible meaning, “the department expects loss of human life to occur if the dam fails.”

OWRD requires “high hazard” dams to be inspected annually. OWRD told the WWCD 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.” WWCD was instructed to “inspect the dam on a semiannual basis, once a year with the water drawn down.”

But despite these legal requirements, the Winchester Dam was only drained (and its leaking structure inspected) by the OWRD four times in 47 years – in 1976, 1987, 2013, and 2023. 

Each inspection produced a report citing serious deficiencies in the dam’s structure and maintenance. Each dam inspector reitterated the need for annual inspections.

Nevertheless, the Winchester Dam hasn’t had a comprehensive structural inspection since 1987, when it was determined that 10% of the dam wall was leaking. 

And since the August 2023 so-called “repairs” to the Winchester Dam, even the casual observer cannot help but notice that the dam leaks worse than ever before. 

After the 2013 inspection, OWRD found the Winchester Dam’s up slope, crest and downslope were all described as “urgent dam safety issues – action now.” According to the dam safety inspector’s report, “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 the OWRD nor the WWCD has taken any action to protect the downstream residents and the general public. 

This is the OWRD colludes with the wealthy and privileged WWCD board of directors to allow the WWCD members to keep an illegal and dangerous private water ski lake that violates OWRD regulations and state laws and prohibits the public from accessing the river or the boat ramp.

Because it provides no public purpose, the Winchester Water Control District (WWCD) itself is, in fact, an illegal organization according to Oregon law. Oregon Revised Statute 553.020 specifically requires all water control districts in the State of Oregon to provide a public purpose such as hydroelectricity, irrigation, or flood control.

Winchester Dam has never provided flood control or irrigation. It hasn’t produced hydropower since 1964.

Oregon Revised Statute 553.020 makes it perfectly clear that “recreation” is not a public purpose:

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “collusion” as “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.”

Despite the WWCD’s clear and ongoing violation of this law, OWRD continues to allow the WWCD to exist and refuses to enforce ORS 553.020 in this instance. This obvious preferential treatment the OWRD extends to the wealthy WWCD members is alarming, but not surprising – it’s been going on for half a century.

Meanwhile, Douglas County real estate brokers continue to advertise multi-million-dollar WWCD properties as having their own private water ski lake. And this is made possible through courtesy of the taxpayer funded Oregon Water Resource Department.

According to OWRD’s website, “The Department’s mission is to serve the public by practicing and promoting responsible water management through two key goals:

• To directly address Oregon’s water supply needs.

• To restore and protect streamflows and watersheds in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of Oregon’s ecosystems, economy, and quality of life.

For nearly half a century, the OWRD’s inaction at the Winchester Dam demonstrate a reckless disregard for their own stated mission. 

OWRD’s ongoing efforts to keep the condemned and derelict dam in place resulted in the worst fish kill on an Oregon river this year and a $27.6 million fine against the WWCD and their dam repair contractors.

Due to OWRD’s rating the dam a “high hazard” and the likelihood of life-threatening disaster if the dam failed, OWRD ordered the WWCD to update their Emergency Action Plan (EAP). Oregon statute OAR 690-020-0400(4) requires EAPs to updated annually.

In what can only be described as wanton disregard for public safety, the WWCD hadn’t updated their EAP since 1987. This meant that, in the event of an emergency, all the contact people listed in their EAP were retired or dead, and all the phone numbers had been changed or disconnected.

In November 2021, under pressure from the OWRD and more than a dozen local organizations – after 34 years of stonewalling, WWCD finally updated their EAP.

That said, we’ve contacted the Roseburg Police Department, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department, and the Oregon State Police, and other first responders to confirm that they did, in fact, received a copy of the WWCD EAP dated November 12, 2021. Each agency stated that they do not have a copy of the WWCD’s EAP and instructed us to contact the WWCD to obtain a copy. Like the WWCD’s by-laws, charter, and minutes of meetings, the WWCD’s EAP is not available to the public. 

The WWCD has not responded to our written requests for copies of the aforementioned documents.

Unlike other dams in Oregon, there are no safety rope buoys or signs warning boaters and swimmers upstream to stay away from the imminent danger presented by the Winchester Dam. 

In 2022 two women were paddleboarding upstream of the dam. Due to the higher-than-normal water levels, they found themselves clinging to the rim of the dam with their bare hands until they no longer had the strength to fight the current and were swept over the dam’s precipice. Both women were injured in the subsequent 17-foot fall, and one was hospitalized.

In an April 18, 1994, letter, Gary Ball, OWRD Watermaster, informed Al Cook, Southwest Regional Manager of OWRD, that the agency had determined that the WWCD was illegally storing 91-acre-feet of river water in excess of their 1910 allotted water rights of 300-acre feet. The illegally stored water increased the pressure behind the condemned and crumbling dam as well as the imminent danger to downstream residents. 

Yet in the ensuing three decades, OWRD and WWCD took no action to mitigate this criminal offense.

Instead of enforcing the laws as is their mandated purpose, OWRD agreed to amend WWCD’s 1910 water storage rights from 300-acre feet to 391-acre feet, thereby accommodating the extra 91-acre-feet of water WWCD had illegally stored for decades. 

This violation increases the volume of water – and by extension, the enormous pressure – behind the bent, bowed and long-ago condemned dam face which, according to OWRD, can only be “considered as temporary in nature.” 

This not only sets a terrible precedent, OWRD has apparently fostered, encouraged, and abetted the WWCD in violating a laundry list of laws and regulations. 

On April 1, 2020, a letter was sent to the Winchester Water Control Board (WWCD), offering to permanently remove the Winchester Dam “at little or no direct cost to the District [WWCD]” and to “end ongoing harm to fisheries and water quality in the North Umpqua River.” The letter was signed by the leaders of Steamboaters, North Umpqua Foundation, Umpqua Watersheds, Inc., Umpqua Valley Fly Fishers, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Northwest Guides and Anglers Association, Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, Oregon Wild, Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, Rogue Flyfishers, Pacific Rivers, Native Fish Society, Cascadia Wildlands, American Whitewater, and McKenzie Flyfishers.

It’s a standing offer that WWCD refuses to acknowledge.

In November 2022, a coalition of 17 organizations, including WaterWatch of Oregon, Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, and Steamboaters formally requested OWRD conduct a bathymetric survey to confirm WWCD’s illegal water storage.

The derelict and disintegrating Winchester Dam hasn’t produced hydroelectricity for more than half a century. It offers no flood control or irrigation. Its sole purpose is to provide a private water ski lake for the exclusive “recreational” use for a few dozen wealthy property owners in the WWCD, at the exclusion of the public.

We’ve made numerous attempts to contact OWRD’s Douglas County Watermaster, Susan Douthit, but she has not responded to our many phone messages and emails. 

On November 20, 2023, we sent an email to Ivan Gall, OWRD’s Interim Deputy Director – Water Management inquiring:

“Perhaps you can explain why Susan Douthit, whose salary is paid by the taxpayers, doesn’t respond.

“Perhaps you can also explain why your agency has not removed the Winchester Dam, as your own engineers recommended when they condemned the dam in 1976. The Winchester Dam remains a ticking time bomb waiting to explode upon the unsuspecting downstream residents in the next major flood or earthquake.”

On. November 27, 2023, Mr. Gall responded to our email, but predictably dodged all of our questions and made not attempt to address the many issues enumerated in this article. 

“We are unable to provide further comment on ongoing litigation cases at this time,” was all he would say.

Ivan Gall’s boss is Doug Woodcock, Acting Director of Oregon Water Resource Department. His email is <wrd_dl_Director@water.oregon.gov> His phone number is (503) 986-0878.

Doug Woodcock, Acting Director of the Oregon Water Resource Department

Feel free to call or write and ask him why his agency refuses to enforce laws at the Winchester Dam that they enforce at other dam and on other rivers in Oregon. Ask him how OWRD’s collusion with the WWCD aligns with OWRD’s stated mandate to “restore and protect streamflows and watersheds in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of Oregon’s ecosystems, economy, and quality of life.”

The apparent collusion between the OWRD and the WWCD is unacceptable.

The Winchester Dam, like a confederate monument, is a relic from a bygone era when the needs of the few outweighed the needs of the many. It has not place in twenty-first century America. 

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