UCC Town Hall

On Saturday evening, March 2, 2024. U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon conducted a town hall meeting at Umpqua Community College (UCC) in Roseburg. The UCC campus is situated directly above the one and a half mile long private water ski lake behind the Winchester Dam, and the 99 properties in the Winchester Water Control District, the entity that owns the condemned and derelict dam.

Residents of Douglas County are subjected to a media blackout in matters pertaining to the Winchester Dam. Patrick Markham, owner of the Roseburg News-Review newspaper and four local radio stations, doesn’t want locals to know that more than 100 people attended Senator Merkley’s town hall – and 9 out of 10 of them support removing the Winchester Dam. In the March 3, 2024, issue of the News-Review they reported only 40 people there. But the local Democratic Party, who hosted the event, as well as Merkley’s Field Representative in Medford, Dahna Black, confirmed that the News-Review misinformed its readers about the number of concerned citizens who attended.

Merkley, a Democrat who has represented Oregon in the U.S. Senate since 2009, was dressed casually in a plaid flannel shirt. After a brief introduction, he presented an award to 102-year-old Peggy Konzack, who has been teaching children to swim at the Roseburg YMCA since 1968.

The Roseburg News-Review deliberately deprived its readers of the following details.

Audience members who wished to speak at Merkley’s town hall received numbered tickets which were later pulled randomly from box. The first attendee called upon was Gregory Flick of Elkton, who happened to be sitting in the front row, on the aisle, about six feet from where Merkeley was standing.

Flick stood up and was handed a cordless microphone. In impassioned tones he told Senator Merkely, “I am here today to issue my protestation for the existence of the condemned Winchester Dam, which has been continuously rated as a “high hazard” dam since 1976.  You passed the Winchester Dam as you made your way up here to the UCC campus,” Flick told the Senator.

“The Winchester Dam is privately owned by a group of homeowners that surround the impounded North Umpqua River, above the crumbling 133-year-old dam the owners of the dam constitute the Winchester Water Control District.  This title sounds like an official agency but it is simply an obfuscation of its membership being private landholders around a lake which serves absolutely NO PUBLIC PURPOSE other than to those that belong to it.”

Flick explained how the dam, which is built of pressure-treated, and creosote treated lumber, continually poisons the drinking water supply for 37,700 residents of Roseburg, and itemized the dangers presented by the dam’s existence.

Ward Three, Roseburg City Councilman Tom Michalek and his wife attended Merkley’s event at UCC. He reported to the Roseburg City Council at their March 11, 2024 meeting, “One of the subjects that came up was the Winchester Dam and there were people who spoke out against it. And then Senator Merkley asked for a show of hands from the audience. There was probably about 100 people there and almost everybody raised their hands in opposition. And then he asked who was in favor of leaving it [in place], and about two people raised their hands.”

“I know there were conversations,” said Merkley in response to Gregory Flick’s question, “with National Marine Fisheries and the Corps of Engineers before about what powers they had, and it seemed to me to go nowhere. But I’m going to refresh those conversations, because I’m not sure where the intersection of their power and state power and local ownership all occur.”

A little later, another member of the audience had the opportunity to address the Senator The speaker identified himself as one of the 99 residents of the Winchester Water Control District. He explained that he was not a lakefront property owner but lived on the hill just below UCC. 

“The Winchester Dam and its fish ladder impede passage to 160 miles of high-quality habitat for spring Chinook,” he told the Senator, “All Chinook, summer steelhead, winter steelhead, cutthroat trout, and Pacific Lamprey, as well as Oregon Coast Coho which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.” He was unapologetic in his condemnation of the Winchester Dam, and demanded to know when it would be removed.

Between February 22 and March 5, 2024, Senator Merkley has received hundreds of letters and emails calling for the removal of the Winchester Dam. We contacted his Field Representative in Medford on Friday, March 8, to see if Senator Merkley supported the removal of the Winchester Dam. According to Field Representative Dahna Black, Senator Merkley “and his staff are still in the process of sorting out information regarding jurisdiction and responsibilities of various agencies regarding Winchester Dam.”

It is difficult to imagine another issue that Senator Merkley could have raised that would receive 90% approval from a group of Douglas County residents. Yet despite the overwhelming support for the removal of the Winchester Dam demonstrated by the show of hands at Senator Merkley’s town hall meeting, it is indeed curious that the Senator does not yet endorse its removal. 

Concerned citizens are encouraged to write to U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, 531 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510, or use the one-click mailer on this website.