The Trade-offs Between Hydropower Dams and Endangered Salmon in the Willamette Valley (2023)


In the heart of the Willamette Valley, a critical debate unfolds at the intersection of environmental conservation and clean energy production. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is at the center of this discourse, managing eight hydropower dams that generate 500 megawatts of energy but pose challenges to the survival of endangered salmon populations.

Public Feedback and Operational Changes

Recent public meetings hosted by the Corps have provided a platform for Willamette Valley residents and conservationists to voice their opinions on the future of these dams. The timing of these discussions aligns with operational changes at two dams, aiming to assist fish but inadvertently causing rivers to be inundated with mud.

The Dilemma: Clean Energy vs. Salmon Migration

The dams, constructed in the mid-20th century to prevent floods, have become a double-edged sword. While they contribute significantly to clean energy production, they impede the migration of salmon, a species integral to the region's ecological balance and culturally significant to native tribes.

Support for Dam Modification

Tribal governments and environmental organizations, including American Rivers and Cascadia Wildlands, advocate for the removal of hydropower capacity. They argue that such a move would facilitate the migration of juvenile salmon to the ocean and back, aiding their life cycle.

Economic Considerations

Sarah Dyrdahl, Northwest region director for American Rivers, questions the economic viability of hydropower from the Willamette dams. This moment, she suggests, is an opportune time to assess the impact of operational changes on juvenile salmon and other species downstream.

Community Perspectives

While some area residents express concerns about the impact on electricity prices, emphasizing the efficiency and cleanliness of hydroelectric power, others raise doubts about the efficacy of salmon reintroduction efforts. Citing an Oregon State University report, they argue that the dams are not the sole obstacle to salmon recovery.

Corps' Response and Controversies

The Corps faces criticism for pursuing a $1.9 billion plan to move fish around dams, a strategy with a mixed track record. Drawdowns of reservoirs, ordered by a federal judge to improve salmon migration, have led to water quality issues, sparking discontent among residents and concerns about the impact on drinking water supplies.

A Call for Balancing Act

Margaret Townsend, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, contends that altering hydropower dams can bring economic and cultural benefits to tribes, sport fishermen, and orcas dependent on salmon. The delicate balance between clean energy production and ecological preservation requires a nuanced approach.

Public Sentiment

Recent public comment sessions reveal a divided sentiment among Willamette Valley residents. While some adamantly oppose removing hydropower capabilities, citing potential economic repercussions, others demand a pause in ongoing drawdowns due to environmental and water quality concerns.


As the Corps prepares its report to Congress, the fate of hydropower dams in the Willamette Valley hangs in the balance. The intersection of environmental conservation, clean energy production, and the survival of endangered salmon underscores the complexity of the decision-making process. Balancing the needs of the community with ecological sustainability is a challenge that demands careful consideration in the pursuit of a harmonious coexistence between human activity and the natural environment.

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