Summer 2021 RESTORATION REPORT
Ken Carloni, Restoration Chair
In my Restoration Report in our Virtual Banquet video, I outlined a number of ongoing restoration projects Umpqua Watersheds is working on with coalitions of like-minded organizations. Here, I’d like to fill in some of the details on two important initiatives involving salmon and steelhead runs on the North Umpqua River:
UW has joined WaterWatch, the Steamboaters, the Native Fish Society, the Crag Law Center, and Oregon Wild to demand that the ~130-year-old Winchester Dam and fish ladder on the North Umpqua River either be upgraded or removed. The Winchester Water Control District (WWCD), the group of private landowners who own the dam and fish ladder, have let the structure deteriorate to dangerous levels – both for fish migrating upstream and for human life downstream. The dam is constructed of wooden timbers and filled with cobble attached to a concrete abutment on the south shore where the City of Roseburg take water to supply 37,000 residents. Water rushing through leaks in the upper part of the dam and flowing through unconsolidated sediments underneath it provides “false attractions” to migrating salmon and steelhead causing them to miss the poorly designed fish ladder. Not only is there no real passage through for exhausted fish, but those recesses contain old rebar and other sharp surfaces that injure and kill them. The relatively ineffective repairs that have been attempted have been done with no permits as required by state authorities. Several of these efforts have polluted the water, killing fish and endangering Roseburg’s drinking water.
Umpqua Watersheds and our partners are demanding that the WWCD allow us to send engineers in to determine the severity of the barrier to fish passage, and especially the danger to downstream residents. Bringing the dam and ladder up to current safety standards for both fish and humans is likely to be far more expensive than removing the structure entirely and restoring free-flowing waters through this reach. We have pledged to raise the money to remove the dam at no cost to the WWCD, but they have rejected this offer. Our request to either fix or remove the dam is working its way through the courts, and early rulings have largely gone in our favor, and we are confident that we will ultimately prevail.
Rock Creek Hatchery
This hatchery was built in 1925 and burned to the ground in the Archie Creek wildfire. A coalition consisting of the Steamboaters, the Native Fish Society, the Conservation Angler, Trout Unlimited, and UW have joined forces to address the Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife’s hatchery program on the North Umpqua River. Experts with the ODF&W have struggled diligently for the last several decades to keep this antiquated facility productive and disease free in the face of increasing temperatures and declining water quality in Rock Creek. This watershed was hit particularly hard by the fire, and it is unlikely that the water quality of the creek will recover to its already compromised water quality for decades. Considering the spotty track record of fish production, poor water quality, and the danger of repeated fires burning through newly established, highly flammable plantations, our coalition believes that rebuilding the hatchery would not be a wise use of state funds.
More fundamental to our argument over not rebuilding the facility is the science that indicates that hatcheries are merely a band-aid on a much bigger problem. In the early part of the last century, hatcheries were built to address the serious decline in our once-spectacular anadromous fish runs, due largely to habitat degradation in upland spawning streams and estuaries at the mouths of rivers. Rather than restoring that habitat, fish were simply raised in artificial concrete tanks and released directly into streams or trucked to other locations. While this quintessentially 20th-century techno-fix seemed like a good idea, and DID produce modest increases in fish numbers, studies have shown that hatchery fish decrease the survival of wild fish. Hatchery fish can dominate spawning grounds, and hundreds of their genes are expressed differently simply due to growing up in hatchery conditions giving them a competitive advantage over wild stocks.
We recently organized a field tour of the Rock Creek watershed and burned-out hatchery for three members of the 7-member Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission who oversees the operations of the ODF&W, along with other agency officials. We stressed that the sea of young plantations that will soon dominate the Rock Creek watershed will decrease summer low flows and increase the risk of more catastrophic wildfire.
It is clear to us that rebuilding the hatchery will be throwing good money after bad. But if it is rebuilt, our coalition is strongly urging the Commission to eliminate the summer steelhead hatchery program. Wild summers have been declining for decades, and the scientific literature clearly shows that hatchery fish have strong negative impacts on native fish where their spawning habitats overlap. Wild steelhead were traditionally taken as brood stock at the Winchester Dam by the ODF&W, and their offspring were raised with stock from hatchery fish at Rock Creek. We believe that this process has hastened the decline of wild summer steelhead, and that safest place for this iconic run is in the river, not in hatcheries.