ODFW's 2023 Fish Kill Champion Ryan Beckley, president of the Winchester Water Control District

In an abundance of self-interest, Ryan Beckley, the president of the Winchester Water Control District, the owners of the Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River, awarded the August 2023 dam repair contract to his own company, TerraFirma Foundations Systems. 

On August 7, 2023, Beckley drained the private water ski lake behind the Winchester Dam to begin three weeks of repairs as originally ordered by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife back in 2019. Beckley’s permit specified that the water level would be lowered at a rate of no more than two inches per hour to minimize disturbance to the aquatic habitat.

But eyewitnesses reported that Beckley actually drained the lake at midnight (thinking no one would monitor his misdeeds) and did so at two feet per hour, exponentially faster than the two inches per hour specified in his permit, devastating downstream fish habitat and impeding fish migration for more than a month.

Ryan Beckley now has the distinction of being personally responsible for the largest fish kill on an Oregon River in 2023, and the needless death of more than half a million Pacific lamprey, a migratory native fish. On October 7, 2023, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife slapped the Winchester Water Control District, and their contractor DOWL Engineering and Beckley’s TerraFirma Foundations Systems with an unprecedented $27.6 million dollar fine.

Hundreds of thousands of Pacific lamprey were killed during so-called repairs at Winchester Dam

Ryan Beckley was apparently unaware that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a stream gauging station on the North Umpqua River, five miles downstream of the Winchester Dam, and the real-time streamgage data appears on their website.

Consequently, an August 2023, screenshot from the USGS stream gauging station on the North Umpqua River clearly indicates a severe spike which coincides with the excessively fast release of the 391-acre-foot contents of the private water ski lake behind the Winchester Dam. The sudden increase in water volume on August 7, 2023, is clearly visible on the USGS chart monitoring water discharge and the cubic feet per second. It took about 4 hours from the river to go from baseline (750cfs) to the peak of the release (1020cfs). This evidence refutes Beckley’s claim that he drained the private water ski lake behind the dam at a rate of two inches per hour, as specified in his permit. 

Although Beckley has made numerous false statements to local newspapers concerning his apparent failure to adhere to the regulations defined in his dam repair permits, the Oregon Department of Justice now has solid evidence that Beckley lied about how fast he drained the private water ski lake behind the dam on August 7, 2023.

In California, work is already underway to remove four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River. One of these, the Iron Gate Dam, built in 1962, is 173 feet high and 740 feet wide. Engineers intend to drain the lake behind the dam as slowly as possible, over the course of 120 days, so as not to devastate fish habitat downstream. 

This is the reason why Beckley’s dam repair permit specified that the private water ski lake behind the Winchester Dam be drained at a rate if two inches per hour, so as not to destroy the habitat of migratory native fish in the North Umpqua River. By draining the lake more than twelve times faster than his permit specified, Beckley willfully and deliberately annihilated fish habitat downstream of the dam. It will be another decade before native fish species recover.

For this reason, Ryan Beckley and the Winchester Water Control District must never again permitted to attempt so-called “repairs” of the Winchester Dam.

Each and every time the dam is “repaired,” hundreds of thousands of native migratory fish are needlessly slaughtered and the drinking water source for one out of three residents of Douglas County, just fifty feet downstream of the dam, is poisoned with carcinogens, arsenic, chromium, copper, and green (wet) cement.

The Winchester Dam was condemned in 1976. Its huge concrete abutments were poured on sediment and are not connected to the bedrock. It provides no hydroelectricity, irrigation, or flood control. The 17-foot Winchester Dam is an impassible barrier to steelhead (and salmon) that, according to Jeff Dose, a retired biologist with 31 years experience in the Umpqua River Basin, cannot leap higher than 14 feet. It’s 80 year old fish ladder actually maims fish passing through.

Thus, it’s now Oregon Fish and Wildlife’s second highest priority for fish passage improvement among all privately owned dams in the state. Consequently, fish populations at Winchester Dam have plummeted to just a few hundred individuals, resulting in the fishing season being closed, year after year. And, according to the Oregon Water Resource Department, it’s a “high hazard” dam, meaning the department anticipates “loss of life” when the dam fails in the next big earthquake or flood.

The Winchester Dam’s sole function is as a private waterski lake for a few dozen boat owners who live in the Winchester Water Control District.

Enough is enough. Bring down the dam. Bring back the fish and the jobs.