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Groups Ask Court To Order Immediate Changes At Willamette Dams To Benefit Salmon, Steelhead
Posted on Monday, December 03, 2018 (PST)

Four conservation groups filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court in Portland Friday (Nov. 30) asking the court to compel the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make immediate operational changes at Willamette River basin dams to aid threatened salmon and steelhead.


The changes, the groups say, are required by a 2008 biological opinion of the Corps’ Willamette River basin dams and are designed to help avoid jeopardy of upper Willamette River chinook salmon and upper Willamette winter steelhead, both listed in 1991 as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.


The groups had initially filed a complaint in the same court March 13 against the Corps and NOAA Fisheries for what they said was the agencies’ failure to protect and recover the threatened fish. They wanted the Corps and NOAA to reinitiate consultation on the impacts of Willamette dams on the two species, which the agencies did soon after the groups initiated the court case.


Now, while the Corps and NOAA develop a new BiOp, the groups are asking the court in their request for an injunction to order the Corps to prioritize dam operations for the benefit of the threatened fish except as needed for flood control and human health. Proposed changes by the groups include 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.


They filed the request in court Friday, Nov. 30, also asking for oral arguments. The groups are the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, WildEarth Guardians and Native Fish Society, represented by attorneys at Advocates for the West.


In a news release, the groups said that the actions by the Corps are needed to meet the mandates of the ESA to recover the listed chinook and steelhead.


“The National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2008 Biological Opinion covering the Willamette dams determined that without these changes the dams would jeopardize the survival and recovery of the two species,” they said. “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.”


The Willamette River dams are on the North Santiam, South Santiam, McKenzie, and Middle Fork Willamette rivers. The groups say that the dams block 40 to 90 percent of habitat in these river sub-basins and prevent adult fish from returning to the spawning grounds upstream of the dams.


“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.


More than 10 years ago, the NEDC and other organizations brought a separate lawsuit against the Corps and NOAA Fisheries to protect Willamette salmon and steelhead. That resulted in a settlement and the issuance of the 2008 BiOp.


NOAA also completed a Recovery Plan which identified the risk of extinction for the two species, according to the group’s Nov. 30 injunction request with the court. It said that five of seven chinook populations were rated as very high risk of extinction, one was moderate risk, and one was low risk. Three of the steelhead populations were rated as low risk of extinction and one was rated as moderate risk.


The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has recently said that there is a 90 percent chance of extinction of one population of upper Willamette steelhead if predation by sea lions at Willamette Falls is allowed to continue. NOAA Fisheries approved an Oregon plan to lethally remove up to 93 California sea lions at the Falls Oct. 26.


(See CBB, Nov. 20, 2018, “Oregon Plan To Euthanize Sea Lions At Willamette Falls Approved By NOAA Fisheries,”


Historically, around 325,000 chinook and 220,000 steelhead made their way up Willamette Falls to spawn in the upper river basins, but in 2018 an estimated 5,880 wild spring chinook and 822 steelhead returned – 99 percent less than historical numbers – the groups said.


Inaction by the Corps in implementing the BiOp’s requirements, the groups say, caused them to file the second lawsuit in March. Since that complaint was filed in District Court, the Corps has agreed to reinitiate ESA consultation over the operations of the dams, but that process will take about four years, concluding in 2023.


“In light of the continued decline of these highly imperiled species, the ongoing adverse effects of the Willamette Project, and the length of time the Corps estimates is needed to complete a new consultation, Plaintiffs request an injunction that would alter operations of the Willamette Project to improve conditions for salmon and steelhead pending completion of consultation,” the preliminary injunction says.


Specifically, according to the motion, the operations the groups are asking for are:


-- Draw down Detroit Reservoir to the regulating outlets (1,370’) by November 15 and hold until December 15, and prioritize use of the regulating outlets over turbines for that time.

-- Draw down Cougar Reservoir to the regulating outlets (1,505’) by November 15 and hold until December 15. Maintain Cougar Reservoir at minimum conservation pool (1,532’) from March 1 to May 1 and prioritize use of regulating outlets over turbines for that time.

-- Draw down Lookout Point Reservoir to the regulating outlets (750’) by November 15 and hold until December 15. Conduct ungated spill at Lookout Point Dam for 2-4 weeks in spring.

-- Conduct an additional draw down at Fall Creek Dam to 685’ from April 1 to June 30.

-- Re-model OMET alternatives: drawdown of Detroit Reservoir from fall through April, run-of-the-river operation at Cougar Dam, and run-of-the-river operation at Lookout Point Dam without assuming that the Corps must fulfill all authorized purposes of the Project.

-- Outplant adult hatchery chinook salmon above Green Peter Dam to study spawning success and juvenile downstream migration through Green Peter.

-- Reduce water temperatures below Lookout Point and Detroit dams in fall-winter by using the lowest regulating outlets to discharge colder water during draw down operations.

-- Adopt and strictly follow maintenance schedules and emergency protocols provided by NOAA and ODFW to reduce water quality impacts during such events.

-- The Corps must coordinate with NOAA and ODFW on implementation of the above measures, monitoring of the measures, adjustments of measures based on that monitoring, and other interim measures the Corps should take to benefit UWR salmon and steelhead.

-- The Corps must keep Plaintiffs and the Court apprised of its actions and the results, and the Court will resolve any disputes that arise over these measures.


The Nov. 30 Motion for a Preliminary Injunction is at


Also see:


--CBB, March 16, 2018, “Conservation Groups Sue Federal Agencies Over ESA-Listed Willamette Salmon, Steelhead,”


CBB, February 23, 2018, “Corps Considers Mixing Tower At Detroit Dam, Would Be One Of Three In Oregon,”


--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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