The Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River is not maintained by the State of Oregon, the federal government, or Army Core of Engineers. It is a private dam owned by the Winchester Water District (WWCD) and they are solely responsible for maintenance, and compliance with state and federal safety codes.

In 1976, Oregon Water Resources Department condemned the Winchester Dam, stating that “consideration must be given to a permanent dam, the existing wooden dam being considered as temporary in nature … either reconstruction or removal of the dam would be necessary.” 

That was half a century ago and the dam has never been removed or replaced.

Most people don’t understand that insurance companies cannot insure a dam once it has been condemned. That means that the Winchester Dam – the most dangerous and illegal dam in Oregon – is uninsured.

Although it is illegal in Oregon to operate a motor vehicle without insurance, the WWCD maintains a 133-year-old condemned dam that will kill men, women, and children, and cause millions of dollars in property damage when in fails in the next big earthquake or flood – and they have no insurance because a condemned dam is uninsurable.

In 1994 the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) determined that WWCD was illegally storing 91-acre-feet of river water in excess of their 1910 allotted water rights of 300-acre feet. Yet in the ensuing three decades, OWRD and WWCD took no action to mitigate this criminal offense. This means that the pressure behind the bowed and crumbling 450-foot-wide dam from the nearly 100-acre-feet of water stored illegally exponentially increases the chances of dam failure.

The average age of dams in the United States is more than 53 years. The older the dam, the more costly the maintenance and repairs. But the 133-year-old Winchester Dam was 86 years old when it was condemned. It has been derelict since the flood of 1964. The Oregon Water Resource Department gives the dam its the highest danger rating, “high hazard,” meaning: “the department expects loss of human life to occur if the dam fails.”

Special Districts Association of Oregon confirms that the WWCD is not a member of their organization and that they have no record of a policy insuring the Winchester Dam or its owners.

Since the Winchester Dam provides no irrigation, flood, control, or hydroelectricity, and its sole function is as a private water ski lake for a few wealthy homeowners in the WWCD, the WWCD and the dam itself are illegal under an Oregon law (533.020) that requires a water district to provide a function other than recreation.

Every few years “band-aid” repairs are attempted at the dam, resulting in the repeated contamination of the drinking water supply for one out of three residents of the county, as well as some of the biggest fish kills recorded on an Oregon river and an unprecedented $27.6 million fine in October of 2023.

The large concrete, southern abutment of the Winchester Dam is the location of the old powerhouse from 75 years ago when the dam was hydroelectric. Most people don’t know that they never excavated all the way down to the bedrock beneath the southern abutment and so the concrete was poured on top of sediment and mud. Consequently, for decades, the forceful river current has been excavating beneath the concrete, creating huge holes beneath the dam that have been leaking for decades. Fearing for their own safety, scuba divers hired to inspect the damage refused to go anywhere near the leak for fear they’d be sucked into the hole.

Under Oregon law, the WWCD’s Emergency Action Plan (as well as their charter, meeting minutes, and by-laws) are required to be made available to the public, as well as to local emergency first responders. But not one of these documents is available online or found in the records of the Douglas County courthouse, city, county, or state police departments, or fire departments. Written requests to the WWCD for these documents go unanswered.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA, local governments are responsible for emergency response and evacuation in a flooding situation.

How can local government and first responders take action if they don’t have a copy of the WWCD’s Emergency Action Plan?

One wonders why the authorities aren’t investigating the Winchester Water Control District for their apparent criminal negligence and reckless endangerment of the unsuspecting downstream neighbors of the condemned and uninsurable Winchester Dam?