Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers

by WaterWatch of Oregon
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers
Protect and Restore Free Flowing Oregon Rivers

WaterWatch wins in Oregon Supreme Court

The Oregon Supreme Court recently ruled in WaterWatch’s favor in an important case about when an unused hydroelectric water right must be converted to a permanent instream water right for the benefit of public uses, such as fish, wildlife, and recreation.

On a tributary to the Powder River in Eastern Oregon, the Rock Creek Power Plant diverted water for nearly 100 years to generate electricity. Then, in 1995, it shut down after deciding it could no longer operate profitably.

Oregon law says hydroelectric water rights must be converted to instream water rights “five years after the use of water under [the] hydroelectric water right ceases.” The owner of the water right on Rock Creek tried to dodge that requirement by occasionally “leasing” the right for shortterm instream use and claiming use “under” the hydroelectric right therefore never ceased. Another company then purchased the right and proposed to use it for a new hydroelectric plant.

The Water Resources Department was prepared to go along, so WaterWatch went to court. The lower courts agreed with the Department, but the Oregon Supreme Court agreed with WaterWatch and directed the Department to begin the process to convert the water right to an instream right. WaterWatch is now monitoring that process to ensure the hydroelectric right is converted to an instream water right.


Legislature approves $25.6 million drought package for Oregon rivers and freshwater habitat

WaterWatch and conservation partners developed a first-of-its-type $25.6 million drought resiliency package approved in February by the Oregon Legislature.

The package will help buffer effects of climate change and associated drought – benefitting rivers, wetlands and aquatic ecosystems.


• $2.6 million for mapping cold water refugia, installing real-time temperature and streamflow gages, and securing instream water rights for streamflows;

• $8 million for fish passage barrier removal;

• $10 million for voluntary water right acquisitions to restore water instream;

• $5 million for aquatic habitats restoration projects.

This is a great step forward. However, additional drought resiliency measures are needed if we want healthy freshwater habitat in a climate changed world.


• protect minimum survival streamflows for fish during drought;

• use existing state drought tools to mandate water conservation measures for cities and agriculture;

• require real-time measurement and reporting of water use;

• set basin-specific efficiency standards to help ensure sustainable agriculture in a warming climate;

• enforce against illegal or wasteful water use;

• sustainably manage Oregon's groundwater resources.

As Oregon faces increasing incidents of drought, these and other measures are critical to ensuring protection and restoration of freshwater habitat, including cold water habitat, into the future.


Oregon’s imperiled Lake Abert finally gets state’s attention

Years of hard work by WaterWatch and conservation allies have created positive momentum for Oregon’s internationally significant Lake Abert. This spectacular Southeastern Oregon lake is second only to the Great Salt Lake in importance for migratory shorebirds in the Great Basin.

Used historically by more than 80 species of shorebirds and waterbirds, it’s particularly important to Wilson’s Phalaropes, American Avocets, North American Eared Grebes, and Snowy Plovers. But when deprived of necessary freshwater inflows from the Chewaucan River, increased salinity levels cause food relied upon by the birds to disappear. Water conditions are so dire that Lake Abert has gone dry twice in the last eight years.

Following in-depth reporting by The Oregonian detailing the state’s failure to address the lake’s plight, WaterWatch and six other conservation organizations requested that Governor Kate Brown and key agencies immediately start implementing 12 needed actions. The state has now committed to working towards a solution for the lake.

We are optimistic that monitoring – foundational for understanding and conserving the lake – will soon be implemented. We know that finding solutions won’t be easy, but we’re committed to working with others to ensure that current momentum is translated into action to preserve this amazing lake.


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In addition to the critical reforms WaterWatch advocates to ensure Oregon manages groundwater sustainably, funding and agency capacity are also essential. As a result of past underinvestment in groundwater in many areas of the state, the Water Resources Department lacks adequate data to make sustainable groundwater decisions.

Conducting multiple groundwater studies to better inform water management is a priority recommended action in Oregon’s Integrated Water Resources Strategy. The importance and need for these groundwater studies was highlighted in The Oregonian’s influential series on the mismanagement of groundwater, “Draining Oregon”. The state has 19 river basins, but to date only three United States Geological Service (USGS) groundwater basin studies have been completed (Deschutes, Upper Klamath, and Willamette). Another is nearly complete in the Harney Basin (part of the Malheur Lakes Basin), and an Oregon-Washington effort in the Walla Walla Basin is underway. The Water Resources Department has 12 basins they have identified as priorities for additional basin studies.

Funding for groundwater studies has been anything but steady. In the mid-1990’s the legislature provided the Water Resources Department up to $1.2 million per biennium towards joint USGS/OWRD groundwater investigations. These funds fueled completed studies in the Deschutes, Klamath, and Willamette. However, this funding diminished significantly through the 2000’s. In the 2009-2011 and 2011-2013 biennium, the Water Resources Department received zero dollars for groundwater investigations. From 2013-2017, the agency received $375,000 per biennium. It was a start, but clearly inadequate for the task at hand.

In 2019, the tide began to turn. Thanks to the advocacy of WaterWatch and others, the legislature delivered $1.6 million to the program, which brought with it six staff. In 2021-2023, the legislature delivered an additional $4.38 million and 16 new positions. This funding should allow the state to move forward, from building basin water budgets, to collecting data needed for additional groundwater studies, to beginning USGS/OWRD groundwater investigations in new basins.

After decades of inadequate funding, this transformative package should produce invaluable information critical for sustainable management of our state’s groundwater resources. WaterWatch will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that this package benefits ecosystems and people who rely on groundwater!


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Fish salvage operations
Fish salvage operations

In late October 2021, work crews finished demolition on three obsolete concrete dams as part of a WaterWatch-led collaborative project to restore access to habitat for native salmon and steelhead in Slate Creek, a key spawning tributary of the Rogue Basin’s Applegate River. Harboldt Dam, listed on the 2019 Statewide Fish Passage Barrier Priority List by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, came out, along with two other fish-blocking dams on Slate tributary Welter Creek.

The multi-faceted project significantly improved access to approximately 15 miles of spawning and rearing habitat, replaced the dams’ water diversion function with a fish-friendly, solar powered, screened, and metered pump, replaced 1,000 feet of leaky concrete canal with new pipe, removed a relic road abutment from Slate Creek, and decommissioned a section of logging road along Welter Creek.

Slate and Welter creeks are now entirely free-flowing at the former dam sites for the first time in at least 80 years. To pay for this project’s significant engineering, permitting, contracting, and construction costs, WaterWatch and our partners raised nearly $600,000 in public and private funding in just over 2 years. The project represented the highest priority fish barrier addressed in the Rogue since the WaterWatch-led Gold Hill Irrigation District Diversion Dam Improvement Project in 2016.

WaterWatch members, your support makes these achievements possible! Thanks to you, the ongoing Free the Rogue campaign remains one of the most successful dam removal and river restoration efforts in the nation. Even so, many obsolete dams throughout Oregon continue to harm fish, wildlife, and water quality even as the many stresses of climate change mount. Please consider a donation today to help us advance our next dam removal project and help restore salmon habitat and natural resiliency in the incredible Rogue River!

For more informationon WaterWatch’s current and past achievements protecting and restoring the Rogue, please check out our latest press release and our Free the Rogue campaign page on our website.

We are also moving forward on another high priority dam removal project in 2022. Please stay tuned for more updates on WaterWatch's dam removals this year!

Before and after at dam site
Before and after at dam site


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Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River
Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River

On the North Umpqua River, WaterWatch of Oregon is leading a coalition of over 20 local and statewide fishing, conservation, and whitewater groups working to end the harm caused by Winchester Dam, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's second highest priority for fish passage improvement among all privately owned dams in the state.

The disintegrating, 17-foot-high, 130-year-old Winchester Dam is maintained solely to create a private waterski lake for surrounding landowners, but it kills, injures, or delays salmon and steelhead trying to access 160 miles of high quality habitat upstream. Impacted runs include spring and fall Chinook, summer and winter steelhead, cutthroat, and Pacific Lamprey, as well as threatened Oregon Coast Coho listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

To protect the irreplaceable North Umpqua, our coalition has so far intervened in a state proceeding to hold the dam owners accountable for a botched 2018 repair that killed numerous fish and harmed the primary drinking water source for 37,700 people, moved Oregon officials to require the owners to meet state dam safety standards for the first time in decades, and filed suit to stop harm the dam causes to protected Coho – after the dam owners rejected our coalition’s offer to raise the public and private funds necessary to remove the dam at little to no direct cost to the owners.

One of just twenty designated high hazard dams evaluated by state officials to be in poor or unsatisfactory condition in Oregon, Winchester is categorized as high hazard by the Oregon Department of Water Resources primarily due to likely loss of life in the case of dam failure among the people who frequent the river, parks, and boat ramps just downstream. There may be an increased risk of a failure at this dam in the near term due to recent catastrophic fire in the North Umpqua.

Unfortunately, Winchester Dam’s owners reneged on a verbal commitment to repair known safety issues at the dam in 2021, after already delaying action for 17 months on a 2019 request from safety officials for a comprehensive inspection and repair of the derelict dam. These safety problems, including many large holes through and under the structure, also cause delay, injury, and death for salmon and steelhead. Previously, Winchester’s owners ignored or delayed action on warnings regarding leakage under the dam’s south abutment contained in state inspection letters in 2016 and 2017. In late 2018, fear of a dam failure due to the growing leakage precipitated a hurried, unpermitted, and ultimately botched repair at the dam.

River advocates will continue pushing the dam owners to comply with state and federal protections for fish, water quality, and public safety. Our preferred alternative to resolve the myriad problems at Winchester Dam is to remove this obsolete structure through a cooperative agreement. We expect removal will bolster fish runs and improve overall river health and resiliency in the face of climate change.

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OWRD Drought map
OWRD Drought map

On Earth Day in April 2021, WaterWatch's staff took the time to reflect on what we love about Oregon's environment. From our majestic rivers to our snow-capped volcanoes, lush forests and spectacular deserts, Oregon is a truly special place.

But with the impacts of climate change being felt each year, we're also taking time to think about drought and water availability in our beloved state. As shown in the Oregon Water Resources Department's most recent Oregon Water Conditions Report (available here), more than 80% of the state is currently experiencing some classification of drought conditions. Reflecting upon the devastating wildfires that affected so many Oregonians in 2020, these conditions are troubling, if not bleak, to see in April of 2021.

We know that climate change creates negative impacts on species and freshwater habitats, exacerbating existing issues associated with stream and wetland management and water allocation in Oregon. Some of these impacts include: reduced snowpack, changes in water availability and changes in hydrology (see the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute's Fifth Oregon Climate Assessment Report, 2021). In short, droughts in Oregon have become more frequent and more severe in the last two decades - and are projected to continue on that trajectory.

In addition, climate change will exacerbate systemic inequalities by magnifying the existing disproportionate impacts of the current system on marginalized communities and the environment.

What Are Some Ways to Address Drought?

The task of mitigating climate change is one of the major challenges of our time, though it is not insurmountable. WaterWatch's expertise is in climate adaption: how can we lessen the impacts of drought on our rivers, waterways, and the fish and people who depend on them here in Oregon? There are many actions our state agencies can take under existing statutes to reduce those impacts. They include:

  • Ramping up enforcement against water waste and other unlawful uses of water
  • Requiring measurement and reporting of water use
  • Requiring mandatory curtailment/conservation plans for municipalities and irrigation districts during times of drought
  • Improving Water Management and Conservation Plans (WMCP's) to actually protect rivers and streams during drought
  • Establishing emergency drought fishing regulations
  • Leasing/purchasing water for instream use
  • Establishing required emergency minimum flows for fish and other aquatic species
  • Funding data and science necessary to build resiliency against drought
  • Improving riparian protections
  • Protect cold water thermal refugia for fish

These actions would help protect our rivers and make them more resilient and adaptable to the onslaught of climate change. They would also support salmon-dependent communities and help address injustices those communities face. Our wonderful rivers deserve celebrating every day, not just on Earth Day, and we need our state to take steps like the ones above to keep them healthy.


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