USACE Ordered to Improve Fish Passage at Dams in Oregon’s Willamette Basin

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service have been ordered by U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez in Portland, Oregon to take immediate action to improve passage for Chinook salmon and winter steelhead trout at dams in Oregon’s Willamette Basin.

Hernandez found that the Corps had failed to provide adequate fish passage and to mitigate water quality issues causing substantial, irreparable harm to the salmonids.

The injunction requires the Corps to conduct a deep drawdown of Cougar Reservoir on the South Fork McKenzie River and spill operations at Foster Dam on the South Fork Santiam River this fall. Further actions will include dams on the North Santiam River and Middle Fork Willamette.

“The implementation of this order is a giant step forward to ensure the recovery of these imperiled fish and right the historic injustice to the health of the river,” Marllies Wierenga, Pacific Northwest conservation manager for WildEarth Guardians, said in a statement.

“These populations are in real trouble, but the court’s required measures provided a roadmap for protecting and restoring these fish and this river, said Jonah Sandford, staff attorney for the Northwest Environmental Defense Center.

The judge’s final opinion noted that the Chinook salmon and Upper Willamette River steelhead were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999, and had remained threatened, while the defendant National Marine Fisheries Service recently considered downgrading their status to endangered.

In 2008, NMFS, in consultation with the Corps, had issued a biological opinion analyzing the impact of the network of 13 federally owned dams and related facilities in the Willamette River Basin on the fish and found that lack of passage was the single most significant adverse effect both the fish and their habitat.

The court concluded that the Corps had since failed for years to provide adequate passage for the threatened fish at these dams in the Willamette Basin.

Hernandez’s order was handed down more than a year after the court ruled in favor of arguments brought by the Northwest Environmental Defense Center WildEarth Guardians and the Native Fish Society against the Corps and NMFS. They were represented by Advocates for the West, a nonprofit environmental law firm.