Willamette River

How PGE powers the city and nurtures fish

The Willamette

The Willamette River is the 10th largest river in the lower 48 states. In 1889, we built the first hydroelectric plant in the American West, Station A, at Willamette Falls in Oregon City, south of Portland. It was replaced by the T.W. Sullivan plant in 1895, which has generated electric power ever since as PGE’s Willamette Falls Hydroelectric Project.

Over the decades, PGE has continually updated the Project so that today, it is an essential source of power for PGE’s customers. Read more about the history of the project, and about PGE’s efforts through the decades to continually enhance the health and welfare of fish in the Willamette River.

Sullivan earns green designation

The Low Impact Hydropower Institute Board certified the Willamette Falls Project in 2008 as low impact, and renewed its certification in 2012. The designation is based on PGE’s extensive fish protection efforts and passage improvements, including installation of a second fish bypass system at the Sullivan plant and construction of the flow control structure at the apex of Willamette Falls.

This designation means the Willamette Falls Project is a recognized producer of low-impact hydro power, joining PGE’s Pelton Round Butte project as two of only a few dozen hydro projects in the U.S. to have earned this distinction.

Other Willamette improvements

Since receiving its new federal operating license in 2005 and installing new protection systems for salmon, the Willamette Falls Project has seen other beneficial improvements. We have increased maintenance of the state-owned fish ladder, installed a new adult lamprey eel passage system, and replaced 11 of the plant’s 13 turbines with highly efficient, fish-friendly turbines.

Read more about our work to keep the Willamette Falls area a vital, healthy place.

Fish health is a priority 

PGE has long helped protect the health and welfare of fish near its hydroelectric plants.

During 2008 and 2009, for instance, PGE fisheries biologists tagged or micro-chipped over 15,000 fish in two studies at the Project. Results show fish survival rates in excess of 98 percent at the powerhouse and 97 percent at the falls.

Chinook salmon

The Willamette River has both spring and fall runs of chinook salmon. Spring chinook move through the Willamette Falls ladder between March and July, spawning in September and October.

Fall chinook pass through the ladder between August and October, spawning in those months. Daily counts of spring and fall chinook passing Willamette Falls are available online from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Four large hatcheries above Willamette Falls produce about 8.8 million smolts each year, plus additional fingerlings to seed reservoir and stream areas.

About three-quarters of this hatchery production is funded by the Army Corps of Engineers as mitigation for lost production areas. The percentage of wild fish in the present run is unknown, but is estimated at 5 to 15 percent of the total.

Fall chinook

Fall chinook salmon were introduced above Willamette Falls in 1964, after upstream fish passage was improved.

Releases of the early spawning (tule) stock ranged from 5 to 12 million smolts annually. The state discontinued releasing hatchery fall chinook in 1996.

Tule fall chinook pass Willamette Falls from mid-August through late September on their way upstream. Fall chinook spawn in the main stem Willamette River and lower reaches of eastside tributaries. Natural production comprises about 28 percent of recent runs.

Coho salmon

The construction and successful operation of fish ladders in the Willamette made it possible for coho salmon to migrate above the falls. Migrating over the falls from August to November, they spawn in October and November. Efforts to establish coho above Willamette Falls began in 1952.

The run never reached expectations, and hatchery introductions were de-emphasized. Recently, this naturalized population has established with annual returns of more than 11,000 fish.

Daily counts of coho passing Willamette Falls are available online from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.


The Willamette Falls fish ladder allows summer and winter steelhead to pass over the falls. Summer steelhead were introduced in the late 1960s to provide sport-fishing opportunities.

They move upriver from March to October and spawn in January and February. Hatchery spawning occurs January through March, and year-old juveniles are released mid-April through early May.

The native Willamette winter steelhead stock is a late run, passing Willamette Falls from February through May. To expand angling opportunities, Big Creek Hatchery stock were introduced in the 1960s.

These fish return in December and January and have established naturally reproducing populations.

Pacific Lamprey “eels”

PGE has also for decades conducted a research program for Pacific lamprey. Lamprey are anadromous, meaning they are born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean and return to fresh water to spawn.

The fish—mistakenly called “eels” because of their appearance by white settlers—are a traditional food source for Native Americans who harvest them at Willamette Falls.

There is limited scientific knowledge of the abundance of lamprey. However, recent estimates indicate that the Willamette population is one of the most robust in the Northwest.

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When fish swim, we all win Get daily fish counts

Daily counts of winter and summer steelhead passing Willamette Falls are available online from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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