The 173-foot Iron Gate Dam is one of the four dams that are being removed from the Klamath River.

The long-ago condemned 134-year-old Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River provides no hydroelectricity, irrigation, or flood control. It’s the most dangerous and illegal dam in Oregon. 

Ironically, the removal of dams has never been as popular as it is today. In 2022, sixty-five dams were removed from American rivers, reconnecting more than 430 upstream river miles across 20 states. In 2023, another 80 dams were removed from American Rivers, freeing another 1,160 upstream river miles.

In the past three years, four dams were removed in the Rogue Basin in southwest Oregon – three on the Rogue’s main stem and another on Elk Creek, a key coho salmon tributary. Now the Rogue River now offers some of the best salmon fishing in the nation.

Perhaps the most well-known dam removal project in the country is on Northern California’s Klamath River, the second largest river in the state after the Sacramento. The Klamath’s watershed covers 16,000 square miles. The river travels 250 miles through two mountain ranges, before it reaches the Pacific Ocean in Northern California’s Del Norte County.

During this colossal demolition project, tens of thousands of tons of materials will be hauled away from the site of the four lowest dams on the Klamath. The work will be completed by autumn of 2024. An estimated 17-20 million cubic yards of sediment have accumulated behind J.C. Boyle Dam, Copco No. 1 Dam, Copco No. 2 Dam, and Iron Gate Dam. Consequently, the reservoirs behind these dams are drained very slowly so as not to disrupt aquatic habitat downstream. Although the initial phase of the drawdown will be completed by the end of February, it will take up to 24 months before the river to returns to its normal clarity. 

Graphic courtesy of Humboldt, the magazine of Cal Poly Humboldt

Once the dams are gone, wild migratory native fish will repopulate the Klamath River and return to their ancestral spawning grounds upstream.

Dam removal is now a popular topic in Douglas County, Oregon, as well. Carol Lovegren Miller’s February 11, 2024, guest “opinion” column in the Roseburg News-Review decries “the environmental devastation occurring due to the Klamath river dam being breached…” 

Miller erroneously believes that “before we even consider breaching dams on the Umpqua, McKenzie, Columbia, and Snake Rivers, we should conduct years of environmental studies on the Klamath River. Freeing rivers comes at tremendous environmental costs. Is it worth it?”

Ms. Miller is either misinformed or she is being deliberately disingenuous. Perhaps she’s just another apologist for the most illegal and dangerous dam in Oregon – the Winchester Dam.

Although tens of millions of dollars were spent improving fish passage and restoring aquatic habitat upstream at the Rock Creek Dam and Soda Springs Dam, the 17-foot Winchester Dam itself remains an impassable barrier to wild migratory native fish. 

According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Winchester Dam impedes access to 160 miles of high-quality habitat on the Wild and Scenic North Umpqua River for spring Chinook salmon, fall Chinook salmon, summer steelhead, winter steelhead, cutthroat trout, and Pacific Lamprey, as well as Oregon Coast Coho salmon which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Meanwhile, fish counts at Winchester Dam steadily decline, which has resulted in the repeated closing of the fishing season in recent years. 

The Winchester Dam’s antiquated fish ladder is so out of date it’s worn down to the exposed rebar which causes injury and mortality to both adult and juvenile migratory native fish. The fish ladder’s entrance is 400-feet away from the primary river flow, so very few fish ever find it. This is exacerbated by the hundreds of leaks in the dam’s face which fish mistake for the river’s current.

Conversely, the state-of-the-art fish ladder at the Soda Springs Dam, 60 miles upriver of the Winchester Dam, was completed in 2012 and cost $60 million. That is more than twelve times (12X) the amount of money the owners of the Winchester Dam, the Winchester Water Control District (WWCD), have spent in total on all repairs to the Winchester Dam in the past 55 years.

Fish ladder at Soda Springs Dam

On August 7, 2023, Ryan Beckley, the president of the WWCD drained the 7,500-foot water ski lake behind the dam twelve times faster than the “two inches per hour” specified in his permit. In doing so he willfully, deliberately, and singlehandedly annihilated seven generations of wild native Pacific lamprey – conservatively estimated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) at 550,000 fatalities – and destroyed miles of aquatic habitat downstream. A U.S. Geological Survey stream gauging station on the North Umpqua River, five miles downstream of the Winchester Dam, documented Beckley’s flagrant disregard for the habitat of the fish in the North Umpqua River, and by extension, for the anglers who fish the North Umpqua.

But in her guest “opinion” column in the Roseburg News-Review, Ms. Miller doesn’t mention Ryan Beckley’s “gift” to the citizens of Douglas County – the unprecedented ecological genocide which, according to ODFW, constitutes the biggest fish kill on an Oregon River in 2023. Beckley’s mismanagement of the dam repair process resulted in an unprecedented $27.5 million fine.

Don’t be fooled by Ms. Miller’s perpetuation of this pervasive myth. No further environmental studies are required. A preponderance of evidence already exists. It is well documented that dams kill fish. Dams delay and block migration. Dams cause fish populations to diminish. But when dams are removed, wild migratory native fish return to their traditional spawning grounds, and multiply – as the have on Southern Oregon’s Rogue River.

The North Umpqua, like the Rogue River, travels from the high Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. After the removal of the four dams on the Rogue River, Gold Beach, Oregon, 30 miles north of the California border, is now a fisherman’s paradise and the fishing season is open all year. At 4:30 a.m. on a weekend morning in August or September, cars are backed up for a mile at the Port of Gold Beach, where hundreds of anglers come to fish on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River which now offers some of the best salmon fishing in the nation.

After the Winchester Dam is removed, wild migratory native fish will return to their spawning grounds upstream. Soon the salmon season on the North Umpqua will be open all year. And fishing tourism on the number one steelhead stream on North America will raise wages in Douglas County.

Thanks to the power of corporate lobbyists, timber corporations now pay poor, clearcut counties like Douglas just 5% of what they paid in timber taxes 20 years ago. The removal of the Winchester Dam is tantamount to the resuscitation of Douglas County’s economy. The existence of the 7,500-foot private water ski lake behind the Winchester Dam keeps wages low and hinders fishing tourism. The dam keeps fish populations in decline. It keeps poisoning Roseburg’s drinking water and continues to endanger downstream residents. The Oregon Water Resource Department condemned the 134-year-old Winchester Dam in 1976. They rated Winchester Dam a “high hazard” in “poor condition” meaning “loss of life” is expected when (not if) the dam fails. 

The condemned and crumbling dam remains a ticking time bomb waiting to explode upon the unsuspecting downstream residents of Roseburg in the next major flood or earthquake.

Ms. Miller’s “opinion” guest column is propaganda. Don’t be fooled by her dubious assertions that dam removal is more destructive than the dam itself.

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