If it were not situated in Douglas County – the Flint, Michigan, or Oregon – the Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River would have been removed when it was condemned by the Oregon Water Resource Department 48 years ago. 

The 134-year-old dam, which provides no electricity, irrigation, or flood control, poisons the drinking water for 37,700 residents of Roseburg, Oregon, and is an impassable barrier to migratory native fish. Its sole purpose is to create as a private waterski lake for a handful of the richest property owners in the county.

The dam is rated a high hazard by the Oregon Water Resource Department, meaning the loss of life is expected when the dam fails. The derelict dam leaks copiously, creating hundreds of false attractants that prevent migratory native fish from locating the dam’s grossly inadequate fish ladder.

Ryan Beckley, the president of TerraFirma Foundation Systems has no qualifications as dam repairman – he’s in the basement repair and concrete foundation business. Although he lives in West Linn, Oregon, 170 miles away, Ryan Beckley is the president of the Winchester Water Control District (WWCD), a homeowners’ group that owns the crumbling and controversial Winchester Dam.

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

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) required that the many leaks in the Winchester Dam be fixed. To that end, the WWCD paid Beckley’s TerraFirma Foundation Systems $3 million for a two-phase dam repair project in August 2023.

On August 7, 2023, Beckley drained the private waterski lake behind the Winchester Dam. His permit mandated that the lake be drained at two inches per hour, so as not to destroy aquatic habitat downstream. But Beckley deliberately violated his permit and drained the lake at two feet per hour, devastating fish habitat on the North Umpqua River – the number one steelhead stream in North America. 

Although Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials witnessed Beckley violating his permit, inexplicably and irreparably, they did not immediately shut down the botched Winchester Dam repair project.

Due to his callous disregard for best fisheries management practices (and the 109-degree temperatures that week) Beckley singlehandedly perpetrated the biggest fishkill on an Oregon River in 2023. More than 550,000 Pacific lamprey were needlessly slaughtered, resulting in an unprecedented $27.5 million fine brough by the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) on October 7, 2023, against the Winchester Water Control District and their contractors.

Seven generations of Pacific lamprey died, as they have (and as they will) every time the private waterski lake is drained for “repairs.”

Curt Melcher, the former director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), was forced to resign in April due to his gross mismanagement of the August 2023 “repairs” of the Winchester Dam. When the dams were removed on the Rogue River a few years ago, Melcher mandated 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 last year. during one of the hottest summers on record, resulting in a record-breaking fish kill.

Disgraced former Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Curt Melcher

Residents of Douglas County, Oregon, want to know why the North Umpqua is unfairly exempt from the laws and regulations ODFW stringently enforces on all Oregon rivers. They want to know why their river receives this egregious “preferential treatment.”

At first, environmentalists, anglers, and downstream residents considered the DOJ’s $27.5 million fine to be both just and prudent. But the DOJs lawsuit effectively slowed the movement to remove the Winchester Dam to a crawl.

Prior to the announcement of the October 7, 2023 fine, the infamous Winchester Dam was a priority at the September 27, 2023, meeting of the Oregon Senate Interim Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire, in Salem, Oregon. At this meeting, State Senator Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat who spent 18 years as District Four’s Member of Congress in the Oregon House of Representatives, was profuse in his criticisms of the damage caused by Ryan Beckley’s Terra Firma Foundations Systems’ during August 2023 repairs of the Winchester Dam.

Oregon Senator Floyd Prozanski at September 27, 2023 Senate Interim Committee Meeting

“We now have a fish kill. We have DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] violations that have been established,” said Prozanski. 

Shawn Clememts, Acting Deputy Director of Fish and Wildlife at ODFW confirmed the fish kill. “It was on the order of hundreds of thousands of lamprey,” he said, “and by statute, that could result in significant financial damages …The agencies are currently consulting with the D.O.J. on this.

“I understand you’ve still got the report to put together,” Prozanski continued, “but I’m hoping that you’re going to give us a date and time … as to when this is going to be there so we can actually hold those accountable who have not done the work they should have done, and actually made the repairs they should have done years ago. I mean, after representing this area for 18 years and having people coming to me, and me trying to be a facilitator with the state agencies, and getting nothing out of it. I’m very concerned with how this is done. … Transparency is one thing; action is another thing.”

But since the filing of the DOJ’s lawsuit, ODFW has offered no transparency, action, or accountability.

Republican State Senator David Brock Smith, who represents part of Douglas County (and who arrived 28 minutes late for the September 27, 2023, meeting) said, “I look forward to talking to you to get more history on this dam. Um. I um … appreciate the work that the agencies are doing on the on-site … I feel … um … as though I need to protect my individuals … in the Winchester Water District.

Oregon Senator David Brock Smith and former mayor of Wasila, Alaska, Sarah Palin

County residents recognize that Brock Smith is committed to making sure the Winchester Dam is never removed. His only concern is insulating his wealthy supporters in the Winchester Water Control District from the consequences of their illegal and dangerous actions.

And ten days later, the DOJ levied the $27.5 million fine.

It was then that Senator Brock Smith asked his fellow senate committee members to table any discussion of the Winchester Dam until the lawsuit is over. And inexplicably – the acquiesced to his wishes.

Sure enough, when the Oregon Senate Interim Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire met on January 10, 2024, and May 30, 2024, the Winchester Dam wasn’t even mentioned. Senator Prozanski, who was so vocal at the September 27, 2023. meeting didn’t even bring it up.

Ironically, the Senate Interim Committee members are giving Brock Smith’s buddies in the WWCD all latitude they need to make this lawsuit last for several decades, so they can dodge accountability for their numerous crimes and permit violations.

The Winchester Water Control District (WWCD) operates like a drug cartel. They do not publish announcements of their meetings in the newspaper. The minutes of their meetings, as well as their bylaws and charter, are not available to the public. Oregon Special Districts claims that they’ve never heard of the WWCD.

The WWCD doesn’t respond to emails, phone calls, or letters – even from the 99 property owners who live in the district that surround the private waterski lake and pick up the tabs for dam “repairs.”

The DOJ naively brought their $27.5million lawsuit in the court of Douglas County – arguably the most corrupt county in Oregon. In the past, large fines of this nature have been accommodatingly reduced from millions to tens of thousands in back-room negotiations without ever going to court. It’s reasonable to assume that that is what will occur with this unprecedented fine, as well.

In fact, the DOJ’s fine and lawsuit have lulled many people into believing the problem with the Winchester Dam has been solved – which it most certainly has not. Ironically, since the August 2023 repairs. the dam leaks worse than it did before, because Beckley drilled 100 six-inch holes in the face of the dam, creating 100 more false attractants for wild, migratory fish 

But until the dam is removed, each subsequent repair effort will cause an unprecedented fish kill, and contaminate drinking water, and destroy aquatic habitat.

The truth is, the 134-year-old Winchester Dam cannot be repaired. It can only be replaced or removed. According to the Oregon Water Resource Department’s 1976 dam inspection report, “consideration must be given to a permanent dam, the existing wooden dam being considered as temporary in nature.” But 48 years later, the condemned dam is still there.

To replace the 450-foot dam will cost about $50 million, exponentially more money than the WWCD is willing to spend to maintain their private waterski lake – or has spent on dam repair and maintenance in their 55 years as the dam’s owners.

Additionally, the 80-year-old fish ladder at the Winchester Dam is hundreds of feet away from the main flow, and so out-of-date it’s worn down to the exposed and rusting rebar that literally maims and kills fish as they attempt passed through. The fish ladder is bad, it’s now ODFW’s second highest priority for fish passage on a private dam in Oregon.

In August 2023, Ryan Beckley didn’t even bother to complete phase one of the two-phase repairs because he spent so much of the WWCD’s $3 million “repair” budget on his trip to Europe and the $200,000 remodel of his $2.1 million home in West Linn, Oregon. Beckley quit halfway through the job and left the country.

So, this summer the WWCD will have to pony up another $3 million to pay him to finish the repairs that were supposed to have been completed last summer.

But due to Beckley’s ignorance of proper dam repair (and what can only be called an abundance of frugality) Beckley will again try to repair the dam on the cheap, while violating his permits, contaminating the drinking water for one of the three county residence, and killing hundreds of thousands of native fish.

It is imperative that Ryan Beckley is prevented from doing further damage to the North Umpqua River, its fishery, and the downstream residents.

Perhaps the most chilling effect of the DOJ’s $27.5 million fine is that now, when concerned citizens contact the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, The Oregon Water Resource Department, or the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, with concerns about the Winchester Dam, agency officials respond by explaining that, because of the DOJ’s $27.5 million lawsuit, they cannot questions pertaining to the condemned dam or discussing the matter.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) Fish Passage Task Force met on Friday, May 17, 2024. A number of concerned citizens wrote letters to the task force calling for the removal of the Winchester Dam. Considering that the substandard and antiquated fish ladder at the Winchester Dam is ODFW’s second highest priority for fish passage on a private dam in Oregon, it seemed reasonable to expect that it would be a topic of discussion for the Fish Passage Task Force.

But the aforementioned letters were never read or discussed at the meeting, nor was the Winchester Dam. 

Thanks to the DOJ’s lawsuit, state agencies won’t even discuss the Winchester Dam or respond to inquiries about the need for its removal.

In this manner, the DOJ’s lawsuit has created a false sense of security that the problem with the Winchester Dam is now solved while giving state agencies, elected officials – and even the WWCD itself – cover to skirt all questions and accountability for the most dangerous and illegal dam in Oregon.

Readers are invited to make a donation to support the removal of the Winchester Dam.

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