The Winchester Water Control District (WWCD) is consortium of wealthy homeowners who own the Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River. They use the dam to create the most expensive private water ski lake in Oregon, at the exclusion of the public, and collude with their cronies at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to propagate the myth that fish populations in the North Umpqua River are healthy and numerous.

ODFW and WWCD also promote the fiction that the fish ladder video camera at Winchester Dam is the only one on the North Umpqua River. It’s a fact that the fish ladder video camera at Winchester Dam is identical to the two fish ladder video cameras further up the North Umpqua River, at Rock Creek Dam and Soda Springs Dam. All three of these fish cameras were paid for by the taxpayers.

Twenty years ago, the number of Coho salmon counted at the Winchester Dam totaled nearly 20,000. Over the past two decades the Coho count has steadily declined. In 2022, fewer that 1,900 Coho were counted at Winchester Dam. This primarily due to the fact that the 17-foot dam is an impassable barrier to migratory native fish who cannot jump that high.

The fish ladder video camera at Winchester Dam is the main attraction at the website of the Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation funded by the Douglas Timer Operators (DTO) and its members. In the past 30 years, the Derby has granted $1.83 million for “fishery enhancement, restoration, and educational projects in the Umpqua Basin.” Ironically, this restoration would not be necessary if not for the severe damage caused by DTO’s own members over-clearcutting and failure to observe best forestry management practices.

But the operative word in the Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby moniker is “enhancement.”

According to a January 6, 2024, posting on the Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby’s website, the total number of Coho salmon counted at the Winchester Dam between October 1 – December 31, 2023, was 7,053.

This dubious report has caused many Douglas County residents to believe that the salmon have recovered. But they are in error.

First, one must consider the source. The Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby website is a shameless propaganda tool for the timber industry. While they clearcut poor, over-logged counties like Douglas, and pay just 5% of what they paid in timber taxes 20 years ago, they use the fish ladder video camera at Winchester Dam to lead naïve people to believe there are still oodles of native fish in the North Umpqua.

But nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, these 2023 fish count totals for the Coho salmon at Winchester Dam are very likely an overestimation.

This fish ladder is 80 years old, out-of-date, and worn down to the exposed and rusting rebar. ODFW has rated the Winchester Dam and its fish ladder their second highest priority for fish passage at a private dam in the entire state. Migratory native fish have a difficult time figuring out whether the Winchester Dam fish ladder is, in fact, a passage up steam. If you spend a few hours watching the Winchester Dam fish ladder video camera, you will observe their obvious confusion, as the fish swim into the fish ladder, repeatedly fall back, and then attempt to go through again – some as many as five or six times before actually migrating upstream

How then, do the ODFW biologists account for the fallbacks? Since ODFW’s inept management of the native fisheries has caused populations on the North Umpqua to plummet, they sometimes inflate the numbers to create the illusion that the fish are thriving.

It is very likely that the count of 7,053 Coho salmon is, in fact, merely 1,000 – 1,500 individual fish counted multiple times, including each and every time they backed out of the fish ladder and tried again.

That said, it’s true that 2023 was a good year for Coho salmon coast-wide. The beneficial effects of limiting Coho harvesting combined with two decades without the introduction of hatchery Coho may (or may not) be in evidence. 

Some years are better than others – there is naturally substantial year to year variation. But one good (or bad) year doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in the long run. The ten-to-twenty-year trend is of far greater importance.

The cheerful images of the occasional fish passing through the derelict fish ladder at Winchester Dam betray the reality that the native fish count is so desperately low, the fishing season has been closed for two of the past three years.

Don’t be fooled by timer industry propaganda. If we want to save our native fish before they disappear, we need to remove the Winchester Dam now.

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