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Conservation Groups Ask Court to Throw a Lifeline to Willamette River Chinook Salmon and Winter Steelhead
Northwest Environmental Defense Center (NEDC), WildEarth Guardians, and Native Fish Society, represented by attorneys at Advocates for the West, filed a motion for preliminary injunction on Friday in the U.S. District Court in Portland. The groups seek an order requiring the Corps to take immediate measures to reduce mortality and harm to these iconic fish. These measures include: prioritizing dam operations for the benefit of the threatened fish except as needed for flood control and human health; deeper reservoir drawdowns at Detroit, Cougar, Fall Creek, and Lookout Point dams to aid fish passage; use of regulating outlets to discharge cooler water at Lookout Point and Detroit dams; and better monitoring and coordination with state and federal agencies.
“The Corps has known for more than a decade what must be done to save our fish, but they have failed to act,” said Jennifer Fairbrother, Campaign & Columbia Regional Director for the Native Fish Society. “Without fish passage, more natural flows, and better water quality, the Corps is failing our fish, our communities, and our state.”
Dams on four key tributaries of the Willamette—the North Santiam, South Santiam, McKenzie, and Middle Fork Willamette rivers—block 40 to 90% of habitat in these subbasins, preventing adult fish from returning to high quality spawning grounds. The large reservoirs and high head (tall height) of the dams also make it nearly impossible for small fish to migrate downstream. Current dam operations create unnatural water flows that reduce channel complexity and fish habitat, while excess total dissolved gas and unnatural water temperatures impair water quality and increase Chinook egg mortality.
To meet the mandates of the Endangered Species Act, the Corps needed to take numerous actions with specific deadlines in order to recover Upper Willamette Chinook salmon and steelhead. The National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) 2008 Biological Opinion covering the Willamette dams determined that without these changes the dams would jeopardize the survival and recovery of the two species. Yet over the past 10 years, the Corps has routinely dodged the agreed-upon actions, missed deadlines, and sidelined state and federal agencies to avoid improving fish passage, flows, and water quality at the dams the Corps operates on the Willamette.
“We simply can’t continue waiting for the Corps to act while these salmon and steelhead populations teeter on the brink of extinction,” NEDC’s executive director, Mark Riskedahl, said. Over a decade ago, NEDC was one of the organizations that brought a separate lawsuit against the Corps and the NMFS to protect Willamette salmon and steelhead; the resulting settlement prompted the issuance of the 2008 Biological Opinion that is central to the current case.
More inaction led the groups to file a lawsuit in March and the Corps agreed to reinitiate Endangered Species Act consultation over the operation of its Willamette dams – a process that the Corps says will take at least four years. In the meantime, the Corps has refused to take the steps necessary to stem the fish’s rapid decline.
“The Corps works like the mafia. They say “trust us”, but then they toss away the contracts they agreed to,” said Marlies Wierenga, from WildEarth Guardians. “Oregonians want clean water and healthy, abundant runs of wild fish, and it’s time for the Corps to deliver.”