On Monday, June 26, 2023, nine individuals were photographed dispensing the contents of no fewer than eight 10-gallon totes of chemicals into the North Umpqua River, a few dozen yards upstream of the Winchester Dam and the drinking water intake for one out of three of Douglas County’s 112,000 residents.

The Winchester Dam, condemned in 1976, provides no hydropower, irrigation, or flood control. Its sole purpose is to create a private water ski lake for the 99 members of Winchester Water Control District (WWCD), some of the county’s wealthiest citizens and owners of the condemned Winchester Dam.

The downstream residents refer to the WWCD members as “bad neighbors.” The WWCD repeatedly contaminates the North Umpqua River at the Winchester Dam, just 50-feet upstream from the drinking water supply for 37,700 men, women, and children.

Photograph taken June 26, 2023, on the banks of the North Umpqua River at Winchester Dam.

The June 26, 2023, photographs clearly show a truck from Terra Firma Foundation Systems, a Portland, Oregon company owned Ryan Beckley, president of the Winchester Water Control District board of directors. An individual who appears to be Ryan Beckley is seen in the photos supervising the apparent chemical application to the river. Three workmen in red Terra Firma Foundation Systems t-shirts stand by.

Ryan Beckley and crew photographed June 26, 2023, with containers of unidentified chemicals.

In the interests of public safety, on July 6, 2023, an email was sent to the Winchester Water Control District (WWCD) asking for information about the chemicals they poured into the river on June 26, 2023. An unidentified individual replied to the email on July 7: “The WWCD did not pour chemicals into the river and we are not aware of anyone pouring chemicals into the river.” 

But the photographs tell a very different story.

Four days before the photos were taken, on June 22, 2023, the WWCD board of directors had a meeting in which the topic of “Milfoil Removal” was listed on their agenda (see image below). The WWCD has been unresponsive to requests for copies of the minutes of this meeting, which by law are supposed to be made available to the public.

Milfoil (often called seaweed) is an aquatic plant that spreads rapidly, forming mats of vegetation on the surface of slow-moving streams and reservoirs. It’s a recurring problem in the private water ski lake behind the Winchester Dam. The lakefront homeowners in the WWCD, who live on the water ski lake, like to keep their lawns green but the fertilizer runoff feeds the milfoil, which grows and expands, making the problem worse.

Milfoil visible growing on the North Umpqua River behind the Winchester Dam.

The lakefront homeowners find the presence of milfoil distasteful – it interferes with water skiing and reduces property values.

Milfoil is usually controlled by chemical herbicides like Spiritflo, 2,4-D, and Dibrox, which are toxic to humans, wildlife, and fish. When applied to the private water ski lake behind the Winchester Dam, these herbicides go right into the public drinking water source 50-feet downstream, which is consumed by one out of three county residents. 

After the chemical herbicide kills the milfoil, the dead plant matter sinks to the bottom of the lake and decays, which creates oxygen depletion that kills fish.

Six weeks after the photographs were taken, on August 7, 2023, Ryan Beckley drained the private water ski lake behind the Winchester Dam 12 times more rapidly than specified in the WWCD’s permit. Like flushing a toilet, this effectively erased all evidence of the apparent contamination of a public drinking water source with chemicals that are linked to lymphatic problems and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Beckley’s flagrant disregard for best fisheries management practices resulted in the biggest fish kill on an Oregon River this year and an unprecedented $27.6 million judgement against the WWCD for permit violations.

Milfoil visible growing on the North Umpqua River behind the Winchester Dam.

Addtionally, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) fined the WWCD more than $134,000 for permit violations during so-called repairs of the Winchester Dam this summer. Every time the WWCD “repairs” the condemned dam, they contaminate drinking water and kill hundreds of thousands of fish. And each time, instead of hiring an experienced dam repair contractor, the WWCD board of directors awards the job to whichever company the board president happens to own.  

In 2018, the WWCD board award the Winchester Dam repair contract to Basco Logging, Inc., owned by then WWCD board president Juan Yraguen. Basco contaminated the drinking water supply with wet cement and killed hundreds of thiousands of native migratory fish, for which ODEQ fined the WWCD $58,378. But when Basco appealed the fine, ODEQ accommodatingly dropped the fine to $19,517. So, it will not come as a surprise if, in the end, the agencies reduce the dollar amount of the fines exponentially and the matter is quietly settled out of court.

As of this writing, ODEQ has taken no action regarding the chemical contamination photographed on June 26, 2023. The WWCD offers a flat denial, despite the photographic evidence. On their website, ODEQ provides forms where citizens can file a pollution complaint.

Is it surprising that a few rich people – some of whom live in Portland and California – would go so far as to poison their neighbors’ drinking water to keep their private waterski lake free from aquatic vegetation? It is indeed ironic that these invasive plants would not grow on the North Umpqua River if not for the presence of the long ago condemned Winchester Dam.

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