A small but important victory for Oregon wild fish populations came in April 2018 following the mere threat of a lawsuit filed by conservation groups, including Guardians, against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The action centers on the Willamette River Basin Flood Control Project, consisting of 13 dams on the Willamette and its main tributaries, which provide flood-risk management, power generation, and irrigation, among other uses. The series of dams is pushing native populations of Chinook salmon and steelhead to the brink of extinction by blocking their passage to upstream spawning grounds and reducing the amount of downstream debris that creates critical fish habitat. Historically, around 325,000 Chinook and 220,000 steelhead travelled up Willamette Falls to spawn in the upper part of the watershed. In 2017, only 822 winter steelhead and an estimated 5,880 wild Chinook returned to the Willamette River—a dismal 1 percent of historic totals. Both species have been listed as threatened since 1999, and their populations should be on the road to recovery rather than further decline.
In 2008, a biological opinion, released by NMFS, concluded that COE’s continued operation of the Willamette dams project would jeopardize the existence of Chinook and steelhead in the Willamette Basin unless the Corps implemented a series of modifications to the project’s infrastructure over a 15-year period. The Corps, however, failed to follow NMFS’ guidelines, in violation of the ESA. Further, the NMFS failed to properly reinitiate Endangered Species Act compliance with the Corps when it was clear that the agency was not making recommended changes. In light of the threat of litigation, the Corps has agreed to reinitiate consultation with NMFS in order to take the necessary steps to protect Chinook and steelhead populations and aid in their ability to successfully reach their spawning grounds.