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Conservation Groups Look to Protect Water for Salmon and Steelhead in Willamette River
“It is essential that the ESA consultation process—which will identify measures needed to protect these invaluable species—be allowed to move forward with all options on the table,” said Jonah Sandford, staff attorney for the Northwest Environmental Defense Center. “Unfortunately, the Corps’ water reallocation plan would preemptively close off management options that could be critical in the fight to save Willamette River salmon and steelhead.”
In the Willamette River basin, wild spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead are on the brink of extinction. The Corps, which maintains and operates 13 dams in the basin, is required by the ESA to manage those dams in a way that does not jeopardize the survival of those fish. To that end, the Corps is currently in renewed talks with NMFS – called a “reconsultation” — to identify management options needed to protect and restore these treasured populations of iconic fish.
Despite being in the middle of this important consultation process, the Corps is moving ahead with a process, to decide who should get how much of the water from its reservoirs. Conservation groups say this could eliminate potential water management options at the dams that could save Willamette River salmon and steelhead. For example, in drought years, adequate flows for fish should be prioritized through reservoir management and dam operations. Yet, the Corps is proposing to eliminate that priority and fast track a flawed plan to divvy up water from the Willamette basin for the next 50 years, notwithstanding the concerns and needs of the imperiled fish. NMFS has already warned the Corps that its water allocation plan will jeopardize threatened fish by not providing sufficient flows.
Conservation groups also criticized the allocation amounts in the Corps’ plan, which would allow nearly a third of the water released from the reservoirs to be taken out of the rivers for use by irrigators and cities. “In addition to being premature, the Corps’ plan gives too much water to cities and irrigators, based on exaggerated claims of future need, while giving threatened fish only about half of what the Fisheries Service says they need just to survive,” said Brian Posewitz, a staff attorney for WaterWatch. “The Corps’ plan makes lawn-watering more important than saving species from extinction.”
Several of the groups have sought the court’s help to protect and recover the Willamette basin’s wild fish over the years. After the groups filed a lawsuit in March 2018, the Corps agreed to reinitiate ESA consultation for the fish – this is the consultation currently in process, which would be severely hindered if the Corps’ water reallocation plan is approved. In the meantime, the Corps continues to fail to take the necessary steps to stem the fish’s rapid decline.
“The Corps continues to ignore its responsibilities bestowed upon it by Congress to protect healthy rivers and threatened fish” said Marlies Wierenga, WildEarth Guardians. “Oregonians want living rivers with clean water and healthy, abundant runs of wild fish. It’s time for the Corps to realign its priorities.”