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Assessment of habitat availability for juvenile Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and steelhead (O. mykiss) in the Willamette River, Oregon

June 6, 2022

The Willamette River, Oregon, is home to two salmonid species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, Upper WIllamette River spring Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and Upper Willamette River winter steelhead (O. mykiss). Streamflow in the Willamette River is regulated by upstream dams, 13 of which are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as part of the Willamette Valley Project. In 2008, these dams were determined to have a deleterious effect on Endangered Species Act-listed salmonids, resulting in USACE taking actions to mitigate those effects. Mitigation actions included setting seasonal streamflow targets at various locations along the river to improve survival and migration of juvenile salmonids. Although these targets were established with the best available information at the time, recent data and models have advanced understanding of Willamette River bathymetric, hydraulic, and thermal conditions, allowing for a more robust analysis of the effect of streamflow on downstream habitat. This study integrates those recent advances to build high-resolution models of usable habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon and steelhead to assess variation in spatial and seasonal patterns of habitat availability. Specifically, this study develops detailed maps of habitat availability for juvenile Chinook salmon and steelhead for two size classes (fry and pre-smolt). Habitat availability is modeled in a three-step process whereby (1) two-dimensional hydraulic models are paired with literature-supplied data on habitat preferences to create spatially explicit maps of rearing habitats for a wide range of streamflows; (2) reach-specific relations between streamflow and habitat area are developed and paired with streamgage records to create habitat time series for 2011, 2015, and 2016, which reflect “cool and wet,” “hot and dry,” and “warm but average precipitation” conditions, respectively; (3) temperature models are coupled with literature-based thermal thresholds to determine time periods and locations along the river corridor when rearing habitat has optimal, harmful, or lethal temperature conditions; (4) finally, habitat availability is summarized at several spatial scales to characterize longitudinal and seasonal patterns.

Findings show that modeled area of rearing habitat for Chinook salmon and steelhead responds non-uniformly to streamflow, where habitat in some reaches of the Willamette River consistently increase with additional streamflow, while in other reaches, habitat area decreases when streamflows increase from low to moderate flows. Modeled differences in flow-habitat relations are primarily explained by local geomorphology in each reach and resulting hydraulic conditions that arise with different streamflows. These are most pronounced when comparing laterally active, multi-channel reaches upstream from Corvallis with downstream reaches that are laterally stable with single-channel planforms. The reaches upstream from Corvallis generally have more habitat available per unit stream distance than downstream reaches, but all reaches display greatest amounts of habitat at the highest streamflows. Finally, results show that warm water temperature in summer greatly decreases the utility of habitat available to the focal species, particularly downstream from Corvallis. Together, these findings serve to inform flow management by characterizing spatial and seasonal patterns of habitat availability for juvenile spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead and provide a quantitative assessment of the effects of streamflow on rearing habitat.

Publication Year 2022
Title Assessment of habitat availability for juvenile Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and steelhead (O. mykiss) in the Willamette River, Oregon
DOI 10.3133/sir20225034
Authors James S. White, James T. Peterson, Laurel E. Stratton Garvin, Tobias J. Kock, J. Rose Wallick
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2022-5034
Index ID sir20225034
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Oregon Water Science Center