Around Oregon

State seeks $27.6 million from southern Oregon dam operators for massive fish kill

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is seeking near record damages from the operators of a southern Oregon dam and its contractors over repairs that led to the deaths of more than half a million juvenile Pacific lamprey.

On Friday, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife filed a complaint against the Winchester Water Control District and its contractors, TerraFirma Foundation Repair and DOWL Engineering, in Douglas County Circuit Court. The department alleges that the contractors and water control district are responsible for the preventable and unlawful killing of 550,000 lamprey during August and September repairs to the Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River near Roseburg. 

The agency is requesting nearly $27.6 million in damages, one of the largest claims for the illegal killing of wildlife ever filed in the state, according to a news release from the agency. 

Ryan Beckley, president of the Winchester Water Control District and owner of TerraFirma, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality also issued a notice Friday to the water control district that it violated state environmental laws by allowing biologically harmful materials to spill and enter the North Umpqua River and failing to report spills. The violations are Class I, the most serious under state law, and a final enforcement notice and fine is forthcoming in a few weeks, the news release said.

What happened?

In order to undertake repairs on the 130-year old dam, the water control district and its operators were permitted by the state fish and wildlife department to drain a portion of the Winchester Reservoir where lamprey and other fish species live and migrate. Under the conditions of the permit, they’d need to execute a fish salvage to save vulnerable lamprey and were allowed to kill no more than 30,000 juvenile lamprey in the process. 

But according to the complaint, it was clear to wildlife officials that TerraFirma began draining the reservoir without enough people and resources to properly salvage lamprey, which were left stranded and exposed within hours of the reservoir being drawn down. 

State officials observed the poorly executed fish salvage and called in emergency aid from agency employees in the area, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians. 

“By that time, there were already thousands of dead fish observable throughout the project area,” the complaint reads.

The lamprey deaths were significant and preventable, according to the complaint, and the record dollar amount claimed reflects the loss of a social, cultural and economically valuable public resource. Pacific lamprey are listed on the state’s Sensitive Species List, meaning efforts are being made to ensure it does not continue to lose population and end up on the Endangered Species List. The fish have great cultural significance to Pacific Northwest tribes.

Winchester Dam

The Winchester Dam was built in 1890 and is made of wood and cement. A former hydropower dam owned by PacifiCorp, it was given for free to more than 100 residents in the late 1960s to enjoy the 1.7-mile-long reservoir as their own lake. Residents are members of the water district, which is responsible for maintenance.

But repairs in recent years have gone awry, including an emergency fish salvage in 2013 and fines in 2018 when concrete got into the water during repairs. 

The latest problems have brought a renewed sense of urgency to environmental groups that have long wanted the dam removed. Doing so would reconnect 160 miles of North Umpqua River and allow unimpeded movement for native migratory fish. 

Winchester Dam is considered a “high hazard dam” by the water resources department because it could have catastrophic consequences if it were to fail, according to Ivan Gall, deputy director for water management at the Oregon Water Resources Department. The dam is upriver from a key drinking water source for the city of Roseburg and the Umpqua Basin Water Association. 

It’s also located in a state and federally designated fish habitat and home to migratory native species, including steelhead, coho salmon and lamprey, a culturally significant food source for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, who live in the area.

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