Judge Blames Corps For Pushing Pacific Salmon To ‘Brink Of Extinction’

A federal judge, granting summary judgment in favor of a lawsuit filed in 2018 by environmentalists, said the Corps of Engineers is years behind on efforts to mitigate dams and river structures along the Willamette River to aid Upper Willamette River (UWR) Chinook and steelhead salmon, and its failures are pushing them “to the brink of extinction.” The judge ordered the Corps to speed up its efforts, but it’s not clear what effect the ruling will have. The Corps doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.

The Willamette River Basin Flood Control Project is a large network of 13 dams and related facilities on various tributaries in the Willamette River basin. The project was constructed beginning in the 1940s to provide flood control, municipal and agricultural water supply, recreation and hydroelectric power to the Willamette Valley. The dams relevant to this case are in the Middle Fork Willamette River, McKenzie River, South Santiam River, and North Santiam River subbasins. Dexter, Lookout Point, Hills Creek and Fall Creek dams are in the Middle Fork Willamette River subbasin; Cougar and Blue River dams are in the McKenzie River subbasin; Green Peter and Foster dams are in the South Santiam River subbasin; and Detroit and Big Cliff dams are in the North Santiam River subbasin.

After Chinook and steelhead salmon were listed as “threatened” (one step below “endangered”) in 1999, the various agencies involved in maintaining the system—including the Corps, the Bonneville Power Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service—consulted on whether and to what extent the structures harmed them. Because of various delays, the results weren’t released until 2008. The salmon are born upriver in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to feed and grow, and return upriver to spawn.

In its 2008 biological opinion, the NMFS said continued operation of the project as proposed by the Corps was likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the UWR Chinook and steelhead and would likely destroy and/or adversely modify the species’ critical habitat. One of the Corps’ own presentations showed fish passage mortality rates of between 71 and 89 percent, although which dams were responsible was not specified. Not only do the dams block the salmon spawning paths, they also raise downstream water temperatures. The opinion listed a series of structural and operational changes to the dams that could mitigate damage, including building fish passages at several dams. For various reasons that are disputed, those measures either never took place or are years behind targeted deadlines. “Far short of moving toward recovery, the Corps is pushing the UWR Chinook and steelhead even closer to the brink of extinction,” the judge wrote.

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In March 2018, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Wild Earth Guardians and the Native Fish Opinion and Order Society filed suit.