Douglas County Oregon Commissioners Tom Kress, Chris Boice, and Tim Freeman

As support coalesces for the removal of the long-ago condemned Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River, some neighbors bemoan the inevitable loss of Winchester Dam’s fish ladder video camera. Some erroneously believe that Winchester Dam, owned by the Winchester Water Control District, has the only fish ladder camera on the Umpqua River. 

Few realize that the Winchester Dam’s concrete fish ladder, installed in 1945, is 79 years old and so out of compliance with twenty-first century standards that it is literally worn down to the exposed rusting rebar which maims fish who attempt to pass through. It’s on the wrong side of the river and 400 feet away from the primary summer flow. In 2019, ODFW ranked Winchester Dam and its fish ladder the 26th worst out of 590 migratory fish passage barriers in Oregon in accordance with a state law (ORS 509.585(3)).

Fish ladder at north bank of the North Umpqua River at Winchester Dam (viewing station far left)

Nevertheless, 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 overlogging and failure to observe best forestry management practices.

The cheerful images of the occasional fish passing through the derelict fish ladder betray the reality that the native fish count at Winchester Dam is so desperately low, the fishing season has been closed for two of the past three years. Fewer than four hundred summer steelhead were counted at Winchester Dam this year – the lowest count in nearly eight decades. The 17-foot Winchester Dam is an impassible barrier to steelhead (and salmon) who, according to Jeff Dose, a retired biologist with 31 years experience in the Umpqua River Basin, cannot leap higher than 14 feet.

In an effort to combat growing community antipathy towards the dam, last summer the three Douglas County Commissioners took it upon themselves to assist a few dozen members of the Winchester Water Control District in their futile effort to hold on to their private water ski lake behind the dam.

At a July 27, 2022, business meeting of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners (BOC), item #12 on the agenda was “Grant Agreement with Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby in the amount of $38,000 to be used exclusively for the purchase of a fish monitoring system at Winchester Dam.” The fish ladder video camera at Winchester Dam would be paid for by $38,800 of county taxpayer dollars and a matching grant of undisclosed value from the Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby

Prior to voting on this matter, Commissioner Tom Kress commented, “I’d like to say that the, you know, the Winchester Dam (and by extension of the fish ladder there) and the ability to count the fish there, is known throughout the West Coast as being a really valuable resource that’s provided data for years for fisheries management. And again, it’s one-of-a-kind on the West Coast, and I’m very thankful that we’re able to go in and partner with the Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby in order to get a more modern camera “thing” there so that, you know, we can continue that work; so that we know exactly what kind of fish we have coming over and into our basin.”

Commissioner Kress neglected to mention (or perhaps is unaware) that the Winchester Dam’s eight-decade-old fish ladder is now so dangerous to wild steelhead and salmon, it’s the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) second highest priority for fish passage at a private dam

Douglas County Oregon Commissioner Tom Kress

Commissioner Kress’ assertion that the fish ladder video camera at Winchester Dam is “one of a kind on the West Coast” is a flagrantly false statement – it’s not even “one of a kind” on the North Umpqua River. 

The fish ladder video camera at Winchester Dam is identical to the two fish ladder video cameras upstream from Winchester Dam, at Rock Creek Dam and Soda Springs Dam – which, along with the fish counting stations, were also paid for by taxpayers.

In a decades long effort to aid and abet their buddies in the Winchester Water Control District (WWCD), Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) obediently refrains from publishing data or fish counts from the fish ladder video cameras at Rock Creek Dam and Soda Springs Dam. ODFW will not even admit to the existence of these cameras. They collude with their pals in the WWCD to make people erroneously believe that if Winchester Dam is removed (as it soon will be) this will mean the loss of the only fish ladder video camera on the North Umpqua River. WWCD members make a concerted effort to broadcast this myth to anyone foolish enough to listen and the three Douglas County Commissioners collude with them in their misinformation campaign. Consequently, the fish counts to which Commissioner Kress refers remain unavailable as ODFW conceals this information from the very public that pays their salaries.

Tour guides at the Rock Creek or Soda Springs Dam delight in explaining how the fish ladders and viewing stations at their dams are far superior to the “antiquated” and “out-of-date” fish ladder at Winchester Dam.

Commissioner Kress is just doing his part to help the few dozen boatowners in the Winchester Water Control District from losing their private water ski lake behind the condemned Winchester Dam – a dam that provides no hydroelectricity, irrigation, or flood control.

Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman

In August 2023, repairs to the derelict dam resulted in the biggest fish kill on an Oregon River in 2023, resulting in a $27.6 million judgement against the WWCD and its contractors. Every time the dam is repaired hundreds of thousands of native fish are needlessly slaughtered and the drinking water for one out of three residents of Douglas County is repeatedly contaminated. It happened the last time they “repaired” the dam, and it will happen again the next time they “repair” the dam. 

Nevertheless, Commission Chairman Tim Freeman, whose political career is ostensibly bought-and-paid-for by the timber industry, added ingenuously, “This has nothing to do with the people that live above the dam; this has nothing to do with taking the dam out.”

Commissioner Chris Boice then claimed that Winchester Dam’s fish ladder video camera was “a one-of-a-kind system.” 

Douglas County Oregon Commissioner Chris Boice

For reasons stated above, the reader is already aware that this is mere hyperbole. The only thing that makes the Winchester Dam one-of-a-kind is that ODFW rates it the second most dangerous fish ladder in Oregon that’s attached to a crumbling and condemned “high hazard” private dam too high for fish to jump.

When the Winchester Dam is removed (as it soon will be) the Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby will broadcast the video feed from the fish ladder video camera at Rock Creek Dam or Soda Springs Dam to keep their many viewers entertained.

Bring down the Dam. Bring Back the Fish and the Jobs.

August 15, 2023: (left to right) WWCD President Ryan Beckley, Commissioner Chris Brice, Commissioner Tom Kris, State Senator David Brock Smith, Commissioner Tim Freeman, State Representative Virgle Osborne at Winchester Dam repair site.

On August 15, 2023, Beckley bragged to a reporter from the Roseburg News-Review that he personally designed the current dam repair project as a “permanent solution — a fix for 100 years to come.” Since October 6, 2023, when ODFW filed a $27.6 million lawsuit against WWCD and Beckley’s company TerraFirma Foundation Systems, Beckley hasn’t said a word to the press. Meanwhile, no insurance company will insure the condemned dam.