Three environmental groups are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect dwindling populations of wild Chinook salmon and winter steelhead in Oregon’s Upper Willamette River.
The complaint, filed March 13 in Portland by WildEarth Guardians, the Native Fish Society and Northwest Environmental Defense Center, accuses the agencies of “missed deadlines, postponed actions and poor communications” over the past decade in managing each of 13 Willamette Project dams for the benefit of fish.
The dams are the primary cause of salmon and steelhead declines in the Upper Willamette Basin, blocking hundreds of miles of spawning habitat and degrading water quality and habitat downstream, according to the lawsuit.
Research conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that, historically, around 325,000 Chinook salmon and 220,000 winter steelhead swamp up Willamette Falls to spawn in the upper river basin. Last year, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife counted 822 steelhead at Willamette Falls — a startling decline of 99.7 percent.
ODFW also counted 36,628 spring Chinook and 3,462 fall Chinook in 2017. However, the groups contend that just 5,880 of the fish were wild born, with the rest raised in hatcheries.
Marlies Wierenga, Pacific Northwest conservation manager for WildEarth Guardians, said hatchery-born salmon are different from wild salmon at a genetic level. Hatchery fish are less disease-resistant, don’t reproduce as well and are less adaptable to the environment, she said.
“Basically, their entire resilience is diminished,” Wierenga said.
Both Upper Willamette steelhead and Chinook salmon were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999. In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a biological opinion directing the Corps to make structural and operational changes at the dams to stem fish losses. However, the groups argue the Corps still has not fulfilled many obligations set forth in the BiOp.
“Nearly 10 years ago, NMFS determined 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 Riskdahl, 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.”
Spokesmen for the Corps and National Marine Fisheries Service declined to comment on pending litigation.
The Willamette Project also stores 80,431 acre-feet of irrigation water for 42,675 acres of farmland. Changes to the system could have a significant impact on downstream farmers, said Mary Anne Cooper, public policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau.
“ESA lawsuits around federal system management are very terrifying for farmers,” Cooper said. “We know how quickly they can change the status quo if we’re not careful.”
Cooper said the Farm Bureau is keeping a close eye on the litigation, which could have a ripple effect on water allocation. Marion County leads Oregon in total value of agricultural products as of the most recent 2012 Census of Agriculture, at more than $592 million.
While Cooper argues the system is already being managed largely for fish, the lawsuit claims 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.”
Wierenga, with WildEarth Guardians, said the dramatic declines in historical fish numbers represent a failure in action and the lawsuit is intended to spur meaningful action.
“It would be a heartbreaking loss if we Oregonians let these culturally important fish, which have adapted and thrived here for generations, slip away from existence on our watch,” Wierenga said.