March 14, 2018

Willamette Dams Litigation

We are partnering with Native Fish SocietyWildEarth Guardians and Advocates for the West in a new lawsuit to press federal agencies to do more to protect salmon and steelhead

By Kale Williams


A coalition of environmental advocacy groups is suing a pair of federal agencies over “missed deadlines, postponed actions, and poor communications” regarding the embattled Chinook salmon and steelhead populations in the Willamette River, the groups said in a statement Monday.

The lawsuit was filed in Portland district court by the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, WildEarth Guardians and the Native Fish Society. It names the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service as defendants, saying neither agency has fulfilled obligations laid out in a 2008 document that called on the agencies to act on behalf of the fish species.

The suit was filed by the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, WildEarth Guardians and the Native Fish Society and named the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the fisheries service, as defendants.

As many as 325,000 Chinook and 220,000 steelhead once navigated up Willamette Falls to spawn every year, the environmental groups wrote in a statement. In 2017, an estimated 5,880 wild Chinook and 822 winter steelhead returned to their native spawning grounds, a drop off of some 99 percent over the last 150 years, said Mark Sherwood, executive director of the Native Fish Society.

Both species have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1999.

In 2008, the fisheries service issued a Biological Opinion that mandated changes to some of the 13 dams operated by the Corps or Engineers as part of the Willamette Valley Flood Control Project. Four of those dams are too tall for fish to navigate and block between 40 and 90 percent of Chinook and steelhead spawning habitat on key tributaries on the Willamette, the environmental groups 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.”

Sea lions, who congregate at Willamette Falls to hunt fish, have also contributed to the decline of Chinook and steelhead, though Sherwood said the predatory pinnipeds are not the primary driver of the drop off. 

The coalition of environmental groups is asking to court to compel the federal agencies to act with greater urgency.

“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.

Both the Corps of Engineers and the fisheries service declined to comment on pending litigation.

– Kale Williams