Willamette Spring Chinook Recovery Gains Momentum

Upper Willamette Spring Chinook were listed as a threatened species in 1999.  Finally, in 2008 the United States Army Corps of Engineers has come up with a proposal to mitigate harm caused by the operation dams in the Willamette basin (Cougar, Blue River, Dexter, Lookout Point, Detroit, Big Cliff, etc.).  The agency was spurred to action after dragging its heels for over 7 years by Willamette Riverkeeper and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center who filed a 60 day notice of intent to sue under the Endangered Species Act.  Shortly thereafter, the Corps released its plan.  Go figure.  It  shouldn’t take a lawsuit for a federal agency to follow the law but apparently it does. The fact that they were able to turn a plan around such a short time after finding out a lawsuit was pending is indicative of bad faith in my opinion.

Historically, over 300,000 wild chinook returned to rivers such as the Santiam, Mckenzie, Clackamas and Middle Fork Willamette.  In the 1920’s fish were still at near historic numbers but industrial development on the Willamette and its tributaries as well as the construction of dams beginning in the 1940’s led to a sharp and consistent decline in wild fish populations.  Despite a small up tick this decade wild fish runs average approximately 10,000 per year (1/30th of historic numbers) approximately half of which return to the Mckenzie.

Now, the Corps is calling for a myriad of expensive techno-fixes at these dams which include improved trap and haul facilities, the construction of downstream passage facilities at some of the dams and potentially temperature control towers.

The crisis on the Willamette is less contentious than the battles over the Columbia and the Governor’s office is working closely with the agency and restoration plans appear to be moving forward provided funding is made available.  Unfortunately, the plan appears to rely on untested technologies or technologies that do not yet exist to improve conditions.  One option not being considered is to lower the the height of certain dams (Cougar comes to mind) in the basin allowing volitional fish passage.  Even a lowered dam could provide nearly equivalent amounts of flood control.  When we are most likely to experience flooding events, the dams are approaching full pool and only have the storage capacity of a smaller dam  so operators have to open the floodgates like in 1996.

In my opinion, the plan does not go far enough.  Nonetheless, this plan is a step forward and we can be grateful for that. –KM

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