Threatened & Endangered Species - Spring Chinook/Winter Steelhead

Willamette Riverkeeper works to protect and restore the Willamette River's water quality and habitat. In addition to advocating for the protection of habitat, and our hands-on work to restore habitat that benefits native species, occasionally we utilize the Endangered Species Act to help protect threatened and endangered species. When the ESA is violated, entities like Willamette Riverkeeper can help enforce the law. 

In 2007 WR sued the US Army Corps of Engineers (owners of major dams in the Willamette System) for failing to complete plans to reduce the impact of their dams on spring Chinook Salmon and winter Steelhead. These species had thrived in the Willamette River System for thousands of years. As a result of the dams on the Willamette tributaries including the North and South Santiam, the McKenzie and the Middle fork Willamette River's, significant numbers of juvenile fish heading downstream were killed by these dams - unable to get downstream of the dams. Further, when the adult fish would migrate hundreds of miles and make it far upriver near their spawning grounds,  the dams blocked their path. The "fish passage" options designed at these dams were typically crude at best, resulting in a significant reduction in wild salmon reproducing in high tributaries of the Willamette system. 


Over many years what used to be an estimated run of nearly 400,000 spring Chinook up the Willamette, according to historical estimates, was reduced to a few thousand naturally reproducing fish. 

As a result of WR's legal action, a settlement was finalized in 2008 that requires significant improvements to fish passage at the US Army Corps dams. In addition, funds were provided over a periods of years to make improvements to habitat affected by the dams. Further, increased natural flows are also part of this effort. Unfortunately, after nearly a decade of work, the US Army Corps is far from finalizing improvements at these various dams. 

At present improved fish collection facilities have been constructed on the North Santiam, and on the South Santiam. A fish weir has been designed for Foster Dam, and should be in place in 2018. Plans are also afoot to build downstream fish passage at Cougar Dam in the McKenzie System, and at Detroit Dam on the North Santiam - both projects not completed until after 2022. 

WR is pushing the agencies to make improvements faster, and to dedicate the necessary funds to get the job done. Unfortunately, there has been a mindset at times time of doing the least possible to maintain the image of forward progress.

WR is calling for the downstream passage at these dams to be designed as quickly as possible, and implemented without further delays in the schedule. Each of these projects have been delayed more than once. WR will be keeping a close watch of this effort and taking part in meeting with the US Army Corps, NOAA Fisheries, and other natural resource agencies. We will utilize whatever tools available in our toolbox to get the job done at a faster pace than we have seen over the last 9 years. 


Hatchery Summer Steelhead  - A Potential Significant Impact

In June of 2017 Willamette Riverkeeper, along with our partner organization The Conservation Angler, filed suit against the US Army Corps of Engineers to push them to conduct a formal consultation regarding the impact of Hatchery Summer Steelhead on the native Winter Steelhead. The Biological Opinion for the Willamette Projects recognized the potential negative impact of the hatchery Summer Steelhead on the native fish. 

Willamette River wild Winter Steelhead were listed as threatened under the ESA in March 1999. ODFW began producing the hatchery Summer Steelhead in the 1960s, which hail from the Washougal River Basin. Historically there were no Summer Steelhead in the Willamette System. ODFW, under contract with the US Army Corps to produce Spring Chinook, decided on its own to start producing the hatchery Summer Steelhead on its own. 

Since that time there has been significant new information related to the impact of Corps of Engineers’ authorization, funding, and facilitation of placing non-native summer steelhead trout into habitat for winter steelhead trout in the upper Willamette River basin. Our suit seeks to compel the Corps of Engineers to comply with the ESA by preventing further irreversible and/or irretrievable commitments of resources before it completes reinitiating consultation.

Key to this issue is the fact that winter and summer steelhead spawn naturally in the same areas in upper Willamette River tributaries and there is an overlap in spawning times and locations, resulting in a danger of interbreeding. Typically the offspring of such fish are less fit, and are less likely to reproduce. 

Genetic analysis is showing that 10 percent of juvenile steelhead at Willamette Falls are hybrids of the two fish and 11.1 percent of steelhead returning to the North Santiam are genetically mixed and 14.8 percent are genetically mixed in the South Santiam River. In our view hybridization decreases the productivity of the winter steelhead population.

Willamette Riverkeeper strongly believes that we need to take all available actions to restore native fish in the Willamette River system. From improving fish passage at the US Army Corps Dams and restoring habitat in the floodplain, to dealing with predation and curbing the impact of some hatchery species - we need to utilize a variety of tools in the tool box.