Cougar Reservoir on the McKenzie River during a deep drawdown operation. Photo by Robert Ashworth.

Reimagining the Willamette

What do you imagine when you dream of the future of Oregon's Willamette basin? Do you see clear waters roiling from thousands of fish jockeying for space on spawning gravel high in the Cascade Mountains or along the calm, winding stretches of Coast Range streams? Do you dream of adipose fins cutting through the surface as you watch a friend play their first winter steelhead? Do you see a river network reconnected and renewed where lamprey hang off the rocks in salubrious masses and giant logs wedge deep in mossy banks creating a nursery where thousands of juvenile fish dart erratically about?

It's a big dream, but one that Native Fish Society is deeply invested in pursuing. And sometimes, you have to dream big to make big things happen. This spring marked a potential new beginning in establishing a path forward for the Willamette basin and its wild fish. A new beginning that NFS hopes will someday see the dream come true of a Willamette that supports healthy, self-sustaining and harvestable populations of wild salmon and steelhead, with increased recreational and angling opportunity and communities that are fully committed to supporting a clean, healthy river to pass along to our children.

As part of a NFS legal victory in 2018, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) agreed to reconsult with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA Fisheries) over the impacts of ongoing dam operations at the Corps' 13 dams in the Willamette. The end result will be a new Biological Opinion that details the ways in which the Corps must make operational and infrastructural changes to Willamette dams to improve water quality and flows and provide both upstream and downstream passage for threatened fish. If implemented, the measures outlined in the new Biological Opinion will be an important step to recovering the Willamette's native spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead.

In preparing for the consultation process, the Corps is undertaking an environmental review of current and proposed operations and infrastructure for the system. This review presents a unique opportunity for the Willamette as it is the first time in nearly forty years that such an analysis has taken place. Making the review even more unique is the opportunity for public participation. For the first time, the public is being asked to engage in the process that will ultimately guide the operation of the Willamette's dams into the foreseeable future.

In June, the Corps and other federal agency partners hosted a number of public meetings throughout the Willamette Basin to receive feedback from the public regarding the system's analysis. NFS staff, River Stewards, and members, along with our conservation partners, attended the numerous events to advocate for changes to system operations to benefit our threatened fish and rivers.

Along with the public meetings, the Corps accepted written comments as part of the scoping period for the project under the National Environmental Policy Act. After extensive literature review and conversations with experts both inside and outside the federal agencies, NFS and a dozen conservation partners crafted detailed comments. (You can read our comments below.)

Along with legal analysis of why the Corps must act to recover threatened fish, the input provided by the groups included specific operational and infrastructural adjustments for each of the system's major dams that the Corps should consider within their review. Actions that should be evaluated by the Corps include deep drawdowns to improve downstream passage, modification or elimination of hydropower operations, and modification or removal of the non-flood control dams (Big Cliff and Dexter).

Each change must be weighed with respect to the associated costs and benefits to our rivers and fish. But now is the time that every option should be fully vetted, analyzed, and evaluated. We concluded our comments with the following charge to the federal agencies responsible for the recovery of the Willamette's threatened salmon and steelhead:

"Our collective organizations share a vision of abundant, wild fish returning to a healthy and thriving Willamette River basin that supports the many cultural, economic, social, and ecological needs of our communities and the landscape many of us call home. But we will only succeed if the agencies take seriously the important role they must play in achieving this goal. We urge you to think boldly, dare greatly, and embrace a forward looking and ambitious vision. It once took all of these attributes to create and build each one of the Willamette Valley System’s dams. The agency has shown itself capable of achieving impressive feats in the past. The question is: Will you do so again?"

We hope the federal agencies will dream big with us as we work toward a vision of a healthy Willamette River system and abundant, wild fish.



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Conservation hydropower

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