Willamette River among most deadly for wild fish, says conservation group
American Rivers, a nonprofit organization advocating for the protection and restoration of river habitats across the United States, named the Willamette River as the fifth most endangered river in the country in a report published this week detailing the most threatened watersheds from coast to coast.
The report calls upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make improvements to 13 dams that the group believes to be outdated and harmful to wild salmon and steelhead populations that are cut off from access to more than 400 miles of pristine spawning and rearing habitat.
According to the report, an estimated annual run of nearly 400,000 spring chinook up the Willamette has dwindled to a few thousand naturally reproducing fish. Last year, the winter steelhead run totaled 512 fish, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife warns that the run is under imminent threat of extinction.
In compiling their report and calling upon the Corps to take action, American Rivers partnered with organizations like the Association of Northwest Steelheaders and Willamette Riverkeeper to bolster their message that this is a situation borders on a crisis.
Bob Rees is the campaign manager of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders' "Quest for 100k" campaign, a movement to bring action that will promote the return of 100,000 wild spring chinook salmon back to the Willamette River Basin. According to Rees, the Corps was charged more than 10 years ago in a biological opinion produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries program to improve fish passage on dams throughout the basin and adopt measures that would aid in the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead.
"They've done next to nothing to implement the conservation measures in (those) 2008 biological provisions," Rees said. "The listing by American Rivers of the Willamette River at No. 5 helps elevate the crisis of the issue.
The Willamette River in Oregon flows 187 miles out of the Cascades and Coast Range Mountains to its confluence with the Columbia River in the city of Portland. The river has 13 significant tributaries, including the Clackamas, Molalla, McKenzie, and North and South Santiam Rivers.
The Willamette Valley Project (WVP), operated by the Corps, consists of 13 multipurpose dams and reservoirs — eight of which are federal hydropower facilities — fish passage facilities, adult fish collection facilities, fish hatcheries, recreation and natural resources areas, and approximately 42 miles of riverbank protection located in the approximately 7,000-square-mile Willamette River Basin in Oregon.
According to American Rivers Senior Director for Wild and Scenic Rivers and Public Lands Policy David Moryc, the Corps must make structural modifications to the dams to facilitate downstream passage for juvenile salmon and continue to improve upstream passage for adult fish so that they can gain access to their historic spawning habitat. It's something that the Corps, according to Moryc, already has a plan in place for, but has yet to initiate, partly due to the fact that funding for two of their major projects at Cougar Dam on South Fork of the McKenzie River and Detroit Dam on the North Fork of the Santiam River was pulled.
In addition, the groups urged Congress to ensure federal funding for improved dam operations.
"Unfortunately, in the president's budget, he's zeroed out funding for the two main projects, Cougar Dam and Detroit Dam. So we're actually heading in the wrong direction," Moryc said.
According to a press release put out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District Public Affairs office Tuesday, the Corps has made substantial progress, implementing a substantial majority of the measures identified by National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in that 2008 biological opinion to provide up and downstream fish passage, operations to improve flow and water temperatures, hatchery management, and habitat.
"The Corps continues to research downstream passage improvements in the Middle Fork Sub basin, where developing fish passage is challenged by multiple dams in series and an extensive reservoir system," the release stated.
According to the release, while the Corps continues to take actions to benefit the listed species in the Willamette Basin, the Corps is also beginning an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act to evaluate the impacts of continued operations and maintenance of the WVP. They're currently soliciting comments from interested stakeholders to fully inform this evaluation up until June 28.
For Moryc, this evaluation is a good step forward, but it's not enough to improve access to habitat for these fish.
"They're doing a whole Willamette River study process. I think that's fine, but we don't need more studies," Moryc said. "We've already got a plan to get these fish above those dams and into that habitat. While we're doing those studies, let's also implement the plan that is in front of us."
The Association of Northwest Steelheaders' Quest for 100k campaign has four phases, the first of which was to secure the section 120 permit in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 that allowed the removal of 16 California sea lions at Willamette Falls over the course of the past year, as well as legislation signed by President Donald Trump last December that will allow for the removal of Steller sea lions as well.
The other phases are to improve fish passage, water management and the fitness of Oregon's hatcheries.
According to Rees, the state's hatchery programs are returning less than ½ of 1 percent of fish, meaning smolts are returning to hatcheries as adults at alarmingly low rates.
"We have to get a robust number of wild fish back to the basin before we can take a few to use in hatchery programs, and then assuming we do rebound those fish, we'll greatly improve the fitness of our hatchery fish stocks," Rees said.
Rees believes that Oregon's federally elected officials are generally inclined to agree with his organization that this situation is a crisis, but it's up to the citizens of Oregon to let them know that they want these issues prioritized.
"We're in the process of gaining public support, mostly through counties and municipalities, and other stakeholders like water users in the basin," Rees said, "so we're mounting an active campaign to get grassroots support for making sure this a priority for our federal delegates."
Read the full report here.
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