Willamette gets promising grade, but ESA listed fish are still struggling

The Willamette River earned a B-minus in its first-ever Willamette Report Card. The grade demonstrates how far the hard-working Oregon river has come since the days when factories and cities dumped raw waste into its waters decades ago. Water quality is much improved since then, to the point that fish and people can swim in it once again.  The report card, developed by the Meyer Memorial Trust’s Willamette River Initiative and in partnership with NOAA Fisheries, is a barometer of the river’s health.

There remains room for improvement, however, in rebuilding the river’s runs of salmon and steelhead and other native fish, according to biologists at NOAA Fisheries.  Many Willamette salmon and steelhead populations are still struggling, with some evidence of declining viability in recent years.

“It’s really a mixed bag,” said Rob Walton, Willamette Recovery Coordinator in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “We’ve seen successful projects to control the river’s temperature and improve water quality, and many organizations are working hard to improve its habitat, but in terms of recovering threatened spring Chinook and steelhead, there is still a long way to go and many problems to solve.”

One of the largest rivers by volume in the western United States, the Willamette River drains a watershed that is home to two-thirds of Oregon’s human population and supports about 75 percent of the state’s economic output, including wineries, farms, and one of the largest ports on the West Coast.

The upper reaches of the Willamette hold the best and most intact habitat and scored strongest on the report card for fish and wildlife diversity, while lower reaches with less habitat held progressively fewer native fish.

NOAA Fisheries’ leading role on the Willamette is to protect and restore native fish listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).   It has worked closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to adjust the design and operation of dams on the river’s tributaries to improve conditions for fish. For example, a temperature control tower has been installed at the Corps’ Cougar Dam east of Eugene to manage the temperature of water leaving the reservoir to better support fish migration and spawning. A similar facility is expected to be constructed at Detroit Reservoir.

A 2008 ESA Biological Opinion issued by NOAA Fisheries also called for improved passage for salmon and steelhead to help adult fish reach high-quality habitat upstream of the dams and to help juvenile fish pass the dams safely as they migrate downstream. The height of the dams and size of the reservoirs makes fish passage difficult. While adult fish can be trapped and hauled upstream by truck around the dams, improved downstream passage for juveniles is more challenging and is still likely years away.

“We understand that these improvements are a very tall order, and very expensive to undertake,” said Marc Liverman, Willamette Branch Chief in NOAA Fisheries’ Portland office. “We appreciate the huge investments involved and appreciate the Corps’ work to make it happen.”

NOAA Fisheries also recently completed a Biological Opinion concluding that the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed approval of portions of Oregon’s rules under the Clean Water Act would likely jeopardize the continued existence of Upper Willamette Chinook salmon and steelhead and six other salmon and steelhead species in Oregon. NOAA Fisheries called for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to take the lead in mapping, protecting, and restoring cool zones in the river for the fish, known as “cold water refugia.” Salmon and steelhead can use the zones like cool stepping stones to safely continue their migrations upriver when water temperatures climb to otherwise lethal levels.

Other habitat improvement projects such as the 1,270 acre Willamette Confluence Project at the junction of the Middle and Coast forks of the Willamette River near Eugene are also important in providing rearing habitat for salmon, steelhead, and other fish and wildlife. The Nature Conservancy organized the purchase of the land, which was funded largely by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board in 2010.

“We support the report card as a very visible way of measuring progress for this river that supports so many people, fish, and wildlife,” Liverman said. “Anytime people are having conversations about the river and its future, that’s a good thing.”