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Conservation Groups Sue Federal Agencies Over ESA-Listed Willamette Salmon, Steelhead
Posted on Friday, March 16, 2018 (PST)

A coalition of conservation groups this week filed a long-promised lawsuit against federal agencies for what the groups say is a failure to protect and recover threatened upper Willamette River chinook salmon and winter steelhead.


The groups, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, WildEarth Guardians and Native Fish Society, represented by attorneys at Advocates for the West, filed the suit Tuesday, March 13 in U.S. District Court in Portland against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries. They want the Corps and NOAA to reinitiate consultation on the impacts of Willamette River dams on the two species, listed in 1999 under the federal Endangered Species Act.


Historically, around 325,000 chinook and 220,000 steelhead made their way up Willamette Falls to spawn in the upper river basins, but last year an estimated 5,880 wild spring chinook and 822 steelhead returned – 99 percent less than historical numbers – they said.


“Everyone in the Northwest that values healthy rivers and forests and fills their glasses with clean drinking water from wild places, ultimately shares common cause with our wild salmon and steelhead, which are the silver thread that holds our region’s ecosystems together,” said Mark Sherwood, Executive Director of the Native Fish Society. “To protect the integrity of our home and our homewaters, federal dam operators in the Willamette River basin must act now to protect our native fish.”


The groups’ sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Corps Nov. 2, 2017. That notice identified “numerous mandatory actions delayed again and again, such as the requirement to improve dam passage for adult and juvenile fish.”


(See CBB, November 3, 2017, “Conservation Groups Announce Intent To Sue Corps Over Willamette Chinook, Steelhead,”


The notice of intent to sue can be found at


In a news release, the groups said the Corps has failed to implement many of the measures required by NOAA Fisheries’ 2008 biological opinion. Given new information showing that upper Willamette spring chinook and steelhead are now at even greater risk, the groups ask the court to “compel the agencies to act with increased urgency and to reinitiate consultation under the Endangered Species Act.” If not done soon, the fish would be lost, they said.


“Nearly ten years ago, NMFS determined that the Corps’ operation of the Willamette dams was likely to jeopardize Chinook and steelhead unless significant changes to the Willamette dam operations were made,” said Mark Riskedahl, Executive Director of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center. “NMFS told the Corps that fish passage was a high priority, yet the Corps has dragged its feet in meeting this requirement and others set by NMFS.”


The Corps operates a series of 13 dams in the Willamette River watershed on four tributaries of the river, and NOAA (National Marine Fisheries Service) is the federal agency that oversees salmon and steelhead recovery. The conservation groups said those dams block 40 to 90 percent of former spawning habitat and “their large reservoirs and high head (dam height) make it nearly impossible for small fish to swim downstream.”


They go on to say that NOAA required the Corps in 2008 to complete a number of actions by specific deadlines in order to recover the chinook and steelhead. Yet, many of the mandatory actions have been delayed by the Corps, such as the requirement to improve dam passage for adult and juvenile fish.


For example, they said, structural or operational changes to improve downstream passage were expected to be completed at Cougar Dam by 2014, followed by Lookout Point in 2021.


Operations to improve water temperature and dissolved gas levels at Detroit and Big Cliff were expected by 2009 and at other dams in 2010. (The Corps has taken public comments on these improvements at Detroit and Big Cliff dams in a National Environmental Policy process. See, CBB, February 23, 2018, “Corps Considers Mixing Tower At Detroit Dam, Would Be One Of Three In Oregon,”


“Yet the Corps has routinely dodged actions, skipped deadlines and sidelined state and federal agencies to avoid improving fish passage at the dams on the Willamette,” the groups said. They contend that the “Corps has developed a pattern of delays that jeopardize the species and can no longer be tolerated if fish are to survive. With the lack of action, declining fish numbers and other new information, the Corps and NMFS need to reinitiate ESA consultation. The groups will not continue to stand idly by while these populations disappear.”


Also see:


--CBB, December 8, 2017, “Corps Seeking Public Input On Detroit Dam Fish Passage, Temperature Control Scoping Process,”


CBB, July 14, 2017, “Ocean Conditions, Sea Lions Faulted For Low Willamette Steelhead Return; Only 822 Wild Steelhead”


-- CBB, Aug. 11, 2017, “ODFW Analysis: With Continued Sea Lion Predation Willamette Winter Steelhead At Risk Of Extinction”


-- CBB, June 16, 2017, “Willamette BiOp For Fish: Four Subbasins Focus Of Corps’ Salmon Reintroduction Programs Above Dams”


-- CBB, June 9, 2017, “Groups Sue Corps Over Upper Willamette Summer-Run Steelhead Hatchery Releases; Says Harm Wild Fish”


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