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Oregon Lawmakers Hear Dire Warning About Willamette Salmonids, Fish Passage Work

Oregon lawmakers heard grim news about the future of Willamette Valley salmon and steelhead runs unless plans to increase fish passage around the Corps of Engineers’ so-called “Big 4” dams are expedited and fully implemented.

ODFW’s Bruce McIntosh warned that the stocks otherwise will go extinct, “likely within our lifetime,” if the federal agency and Congress doesn’t better connect the large amount of fish habitat available in the upper watersheds of the North and South Santiams, McKenzie and Middle Fork Willamette to the rest of the system.

Even as some projects to do that are years behind schedule, important funding to finish the work has been zeroed out starting this fall, he said.

WATER FLOWS THROUGH FLOOD GATES AT LOOKOUT POINT DAM DURING A 2013 TEST TO DETERMINE HOW BEST TO AID THE DOWNSTREAM MIGRATION OF LISTED SALMON AND STEELHEAD STOCKS. A STATE MANAGER SAYS THAT 70 TO 90 PERCENT OF SMOLTS DIE AT THE DAMS. (MARY KAREN SCULLION, CORPS OF ENGINEERS RESERVOIR REGULATION & WATER QUALITY SECTION)

The Corps has operated 13 dams in the watershed starting with the first 50 years ago for hydropower and flood control — preventing $1 billion in damage this spring, it touted — and has provided hatchery mitigation since Congress authorized it in 1951. They’ve also built adult collection facilities.

But the problem is getting young fish hatched in redds in the mountain reaches safely down past the dams. McIntosh says 70 to 90 percent die as they try to navigate through the facilities.

It’s more and more important with listed wild returns at Willamette Falls decreasing since at least the turn of the millennium, from 20,000-plus spring Chinook in the first years of the 2000s to 5,000 last year, and from 16,000 winter steelhead in 2002 to 2000 in 2018.

“Frankly, when you look at that, you can hear the battle drums of endangered species, not just threatened species. That’s the crossroads we sit at now,” McIntosh, the state’s deputy fish chief, told members of the House Committee on Natural Resources in a televised work session (starts at about 1:12:30) yesterday.

Increasing the number of returning wild fish could mean that fishery restrictions can be eased, but if runs continue to plummet, they will only get tighter due to the Endangered Species Act.

Pointing to a slide in his presentation that also showed Grand Ronde Tribe members dipnetting for the first time, McIntosh said, “There’s a whole fleet and economy around the fisheries at Willamette Falls and the Lower Columbia that is at stake here.”

McIntosh did acknowledge the “new actor on the stage” affecting returning salmonid numbers — sea lions that arrived at Willamette Falls in the past decade and which feast on returning salmon and steelhead at the chokepoint.

But he also reported that since ODFW received the OK from the National Marine Fisheries Service last fall to kill pinnipeds there, 34 have been euthanized.

A SEA LION FLINGS A SALMONID AT WILLAMETTE FALLS. (ODFW)

McIntosh said that most of what federal engineers need to do further up in the watershed is included in a 2008 federal biological opinion.

“Frankly, the Corps needs to get about the business of modifying those dams and operations, and Congress must fund them. That’s where we sit today,” McIntosh said.

He allowed that the Corps’ task was not easy, given the nature of the reservoirs, predation in them and how young fish prefer to travel at the surface of the lakes, and that some work has been accomplished.

Adult fish are being trucked around Detroit Dam on the North Santiam and Foster on the South Santiam, for instance, but there’s no way to collect smolts that otherwise have to go over the spillway or through the turbines and hope for the best. However, an “extreme draining” test on Fall Creek Reservoir showed promise for flushing fish and ridding the impoundment of nonnative fish.

THE CORPS OF ENGINEERS FISH COLLECTION FACILITY BELOW COUGAR DAM, ON A MCKENZIE TRIBUTARY. (ACOE)

He also said that other improvements are several years behind schedule, with the completion date at Lookout Point Dam on the Middle Fork — behind which is an estimated 94 percent of the highest quality spawning and rearing waters for springers in that system — now “unknown.”

Eighty-five percent of the best habitat on the South Santiam is behind Foster and Green Peter Reservoirs, 71 percent on the North Santiam is behind Detroit Reservoir, and 25 percent is behind Cougar Dam on a tributary of the McKenzie, he said.

And what’s even worse, according to McIntosh, is that the Trump Administration’s construction budget for Willamette basin work has been “zeroed out” starting this October.

McIntosh also highlighted how the Corps has been backing away from mitigating its dams with hatchery fish and is now producing 20 percent less than in past decade.

“And we frankly suspect there are more reductions to follow,” he said.

He claimed that the feds consider putting out their 4.6 million salmon and steelhead and 750,000 trout to be “discretionary” rather than a line item in their budget.

As the Corps has recently mulled turning over hatchery production in the basin to private vendors, McIntosh said he’s joked with federal staffers that they should turn over their dams to PGE, which saw “significant increase in survival” after it installed upstream and downstream fish passage at its Clackamas River dams.

At a cost of $90 million, 97 percent of juvenile salmon and steelhead now safely pass the facilities, according to the Portland-based utility.

ODFW’S BRUCE MCINTOSH SPEAKS BEFORE THE OREGON LEGISLATURE’S HOUSE COMMITTEE ON NATURAL RESOURCES, CHAIRED BY REP. BRAD WITT. (OREGON LEGISLATURE)

“What’s at stake? It’s our legacy. While we fully support the Corps and federal government efforts to restore wild fish to sustainable levels in the valley, they also have a mitigation responsibility, and our message to them is, we will not accept paper fish in exchange for real fish,” McIntosh said.

“When they get about the business of recovering wild fish, we can talk about reducing that mitigation responsibility,” he said.

At the end of the work session, Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie) said that he intended to have a letter drafted supporting construction work on the Willamette system to aid fish passage.