The top priority for saving Upper Willamette Basin salmon and steelhead from extinction is getting more fish over the dams that control floods in the region, according to the plan issued Monday by federal and state officials.
It depends heavily on work the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is doing to get more fish over the dams on the North and South forks of the Santiam, the McKenzie and the Middle Fork of the Willamette River.
"A key piece of the recovery plan is to get chinook and steelhead back up those four watersheds," said Rob Walton, senior policy adviser for NOAA Fisheries in Portland, Ore. "Because (the dams) are so effective at controlling floods, it also means they cut off a lot of habitat where chinook used to go."
Dams block 70 percent of historic spring chinook spawning habitat on the North and South forks of the Santiam, about 95 percent on the Middle Fork Willamette, and 15 percent on the McKenzie, said Dave Jepsen, conservation planner for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"If we get 'em up there, the habitat is generally not in bad shape," because most of it is on national forest, Jepsen said. "We've just got to get the fish there."
After Willamette Riverkeeper sued, the corps began working to overhaul ineffective systems to trap adult salmon and steelhead and haul them by truck upstream of the dams to spawning areas that have been blocked for generations.
"You are really talking about a species greatly reduced in numbers because of our activities in the last 150 years," said Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper. "It's going to be a long process to bring things back to the point that populations are self-sustaining. I think there is a lot of promise."
A new trapping system was built last year at Cougar Dam on the McKenzie River to replace one that didn't work, and another is under construction on the North Santiam below Big Cliff Dam, said Corps spokeswoman Amy Echols.
Jepsen said the next step is to make it safe for the young salmon going over spillways and through power-generating turbines as they migrate to the ocean.
It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take 10 to 15 years to overhaul all the dams, Echols said.
On top of the dam overhauls, the recovery plan is estimated to cost $265 million over the next 25 years. It includes steps to lower water temperatures, improve water quality, and form partnerships with farmers to improve habitat.
"A well-run farm or ranch is a better neighbor for salmon than a strip mall or subdivision," said Watson. "With many aspects of environmental protection, we are at odds with the economy. In this case, we are trying to align sustainable agriculture with sustainable salmon habitat."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.