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NW Fishletter #371, July 3, 2017

[7] Progress Reported on Willamette River BiOp Requirements

Representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and Green Belt Land Trust updated the Northwest Power and Conservation Council June 14 on their work to re-establish Oregon's Willamette Basin as a sustainable home for Chinook, steelhead, bull trout and other fish species.

A 2008 BiOp for the basin calls for fish passage and reintroduction in watersheds above dams as well as habitat improvements.

The Corps built and operates 13 dams as part of the Willamette Valley Project, which also includes fish hatcheries and over 90 miles, about half of the river's length, of bank armoring added to reduce flooding and erosion.

The Willamette River extends about 180 miles from Portland upstream to its headwaters southeast of Eugene.

The dams provide flood control and eight of them generate electricity marketed by BPA. Most of the high-head dams were built without fish passage in mind, said Ian Chane, Columbia River fish mitigation manager for the Corps' Portland District.

But the BiOp, issued by NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, requires fish passage at the 13 dams.

The fish populations covered in the BiOp are Endangered Species Act-listed upper Willamette spring Chinook, upper Willamette steelhead, bull trout and Oregon chub. The latter species, having been restored, was delisted from ESA protection in 2015 and was the first fish in the U.S. to recover from endangered status.

The Corps is concentrating its Willamette River fish reintroduction in four sub-basins: North Santiam River (Detroit and Big Cliff dams) and South Santiam (Green Peter and Foster dams), both for spring Chinook and winter steelhead; South Fork of the McKenzie River (Cougar Dam) for spring Chinook and bull trout; and Middle Fork of the Willamette River (Hills Creek, Dexter and Lookout Point dams) for spring Chinook.

For populations of anadromous fish and bull trout to re-establish in upper basin areas, they must be able to pass the dams. To do this, Chane said, the fish need proper flows and water temperatures and passage routes at the dams.

With in-stream flows set, the schedule for downstream fish passage puts Foster Dam on the South Santiam in 2018, Cougar Dam on the South Fork McKenzie in 2020, and Detroit Dam temperature control on the North Santiam in 2021.

Downstream passage for juveniles is already available at Fall Creek Dam on the Middle Fork of the Willamette, and research on juvenile fish passage at Lookout Point Dam also on the Middle Fork is pending.

dams
Willamette River dams and floodplains store water. Credit: Marion County, Ore.

Upstream passage for adult salmon and steelhead has been completed, except for an adult collection facility at Fall Creek Dam, scheduled to be in place by 2018. Adult fish are trapped and hauled above the hydro projects.

The current total budget estimate to complete the BiOp requirements for fish passage at the dams and habitat projects downstream is $757 million.

BPA is responsible for about half of the BiOp costs, with the Corps picking up the rest, Oregon Council staffer Karl Weist told NW Fishletter in an email. And the Corps needs congressional authorization to fund its work in the Willamette Basin.

In addition to addressing fish passage and temperature issues, the BiOp's reasonable and prudent alternates include the continued production of hatchery fish, managing hatchery genetics and improving fish habitat below the projects.

The Corps' hatchery program for summer steelhead, however, is being challenged. Two conservation groups that announced their intent to sue the federal agency followed through with a suit alleging the hatchery summer steelhead are contributing to the decline of the Willamette's native winter steelhead).

The winter steelhead population is protected by the ESA and covered by the 2008 BiOp. The groups, Willamette Riverkeeper and The Conservation Angler want to stop the hatchery program until a new biological opinion is produced.

In contrast, BiOp provisions to rehabilitate Willamette Basin fish habitat have not been controversial.

The focus of that work has been increased side channel complexity, floodplain reconnection and floodplain forest restoration.

The public-private funding partnerships have resulted in nearly 4,000 acres of floodplain and riparian reforestation, 15.5 miles of side channel reconnected to floodplains, 23 fish barriers fixed or removed, and other accomplishments, Andrew Dutterer, OWEB partnerships coordinator, told Council members.

Principal funders have been BEF, OWEB and Meyer Memorial Trust.

In fiscal year 2016, total project costs were $2.9 million. Of that, OWEB contributed $1.4 million, Meyer Memorial $725,000, and BPA $700,000.

The Council approved $800,000 for FY 2017 as the ratepayer-funded contribution to Willamette BiOp habitat restoration. This fish and wildlife program portion of the work, which the Council approved June 13, is one of the F&W program's umbrella projects.

In an evaluation of umbrella projects in March, the Independent Science Review Panel recommended the Willamette project devise "a coherent description of proposed and existing research and monitoring efforts" and refine restoration objectives to better measure progress.

In response to the review, Dan Bell, director of the Willamette Strategic Partnerships for BEF, told the Council the habitat program would develop a cohesive monitoring plan and move from tracking decadal trends to setting decadal objectives.

"Our approach," he said, "is streamlined, focused at a landscape scale and would have affordable and predictable costs over time."

The Willamette River BiOp ends in 2023. -Laura Berg

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: Laura Berg
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