Report says the Willamette River is among the nation's most deadly for fish
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 last week.
The report calls upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make improvements to 13 dams the group believes to be outdated and harmful to wild salmon and steelhead populations that are cut off from access to more than 400 miles of pristine spawning and rearing habitat.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 River 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 its report and calling upon the federal government to take action, American Rivers partnered with organizations like the Association of Northwest Steelheaders and Willamette Riverkeepers to bolster its message that the situation borders on a crisis.
The "Quest for 100k" campaign is a movement to bring action that will promote the return of 100,000 wild spring chinook salmon back to the Willamette River Basin, said Bob Rees, campaign manager of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders'. He added that the Army Corps of Engineers was charged more than 10 years ago in a biological opinion produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries program with improving fish passage on dams throughout the basin and to 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 Cascade Mountains, past Newberg and St. Paul, toward its confluence with the Columbia River in Portland. The river has 13 significant tributaries, including the Clackamas, Molalla, McKenzie, and North and South Santiam Rivers.
The Willamette Valley Project, operated by the Corps of Engineers, 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.
David Moryc, American Rivers senior director for wild and scenic rivers and public lands policy, said the Corps of Engineers 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 of Engineers, Moryc said, has a plan in place for but has yet to initiate, partly due to funding issues.
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 Corps of Engineers' Portland office last week, the agency has made substantial progress, implementing a 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 Willamette Valley Project. They're soliciting comments through June 28 from interested stakeholders to fully inform this evaluation.
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," he 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 a permit 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 in 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.