Dedicated to the Recovery of the Iconic Salmon and Steelhead runs in the Upper Willamette Basin
Today in the Willamette River basin, wild spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead populations are on the brink of blinking out. As many as half a million fish once returned to the Willamette each year, a silver thread of life extending from the Pacific, surging above the pounding waters of Willamette falls, and weaving up Cascade and Coast Range streams to spawn the next generation. But a century and a half of human impacts have decimated the abundance of our iconic fish—runs are now just one percent of historic levels. In 2017, a mere 512 wild winter steelhead migrated back to the upper Willamette basin. Even fewer fish survived to spawn. Without a change of course now, we will lose the wild fish of the Willamette forever.
While there are many causes of these declines, at the heart of this problem are a network of thirteen dams built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Army Corps) and located throughout the Willamette basin. These dams block access to 75% of the basin’s critical salmon and steelhead spawning habitat and further harm fish and the river by altering natural flows, contributing to diminish water quality, and degrading riparian environments.
Because Willamette Chinook and steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the Army Corps has a duty to ensure the dams do not jeopardize their survival and recovery. National Marine Fisheries Service issued a complete list of actions in 2008, identified in a Biological Opinion, that the Army Corps must take to protect these species and ensure recovery. The agency said that the critical actions needed to recover Willamette salmon and steelhead are fish passage for adults and juveniles, improved water temps and flows downstream of dams, downstream habitat restoration, and completed Hatchery Genetic Management Plans.
Ten years later, many of the required actions have not been undertaken. Many of the deadlines in the Biological Opinion and agreed to by the Corps have been missed. The result: Willamette salmon and steelhead populations are the most imperiled populations in Oregon.
A void of broad, public support in the basin for wild fish recovery has resulted in a lack of political will and legal clarity amongst agency managers and Congressional decision-makers when it comes to enforcing the provisions of the Biological Opinion and implementing solutions that will ensure recovery. Until solutions are supported vocally by a diversity of passionate local advocates and their communities, meaningfully disseminated to policy makers, and implemented on the ground by management agencies, the keystone fish species of our region will continue their slide toward extinction.
Through our collective voices as anglers, as conservationists, as businesses, as local governments, as tribal nations, and as Oregonians, we must act to save our fish and our river—we must ReWild the Willamette. Together, we can secure a future for the Willamette that supports abundant, wild fish and thriving local communities.