Environmental groups to sue Corps over Willamette River fish passage shortfalls

A coalition of environmental watchdog organizations have issued an intent to bring suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the condition of fish populations in the Willamette River Basin.

Submitted last week to the Corps’ headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the Portland District Office by non-profit law group Advocates for the West, the notice represents Wild Earth Guardians, the Native Fish Society and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center.

The document represents “nearly a decade’s worth of missed deadlines, postponed actions and poor communications” from the Corps, according to the Native Fish Society, as the federal agency has failed to protect threatened chinook and steelhead populations.

The organizations say around less than 1% of the fishes’ historical numbers are now making it to the river’s upper basins, prompting the National Marine Fisheries Service to list the chinook and steelhead as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1999.

Declining populations eventually led to a legal agreement in 2008, under which the Corps was to have improved fish passage infrastructure and water quality at its 13 Willamette River dams.

“Structural or operational changes to improve downstream passage were expected to be completed at Cougar Dam by 2014, followed by Lookout Point in 2021,” the groups said in a statement. “Operations to improve water temperature and dissolved gas levels at Detroit and Big Cliff were expected by 2009 and at other dams in 2010.”

A statement said the groups would prefer that Corps “action be taken absent litigation”, but that they “will not continue to stand idly by.”

The Willamette River is one of the Columbia River’s largest tributaries. It empties into the Columbia River about 100 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean.

Eight of the 13 Columbia River dam facilities operated and maintained by the Corps include a generating component, with hydropower plants including the 30-MW Hills Creek, 120-MW Lookout Point, 15-MW Dexter, 25-MW Cougar, 80-MW Green Peter, 20-MW Foster, 100-MW Detroit, and 18-MW Big Cliff. Electricity generated at these facilities is marketed by the Bonneville Power Administration, while irrigation contracts for water impounded by the dams are managed by the Bureau of Reclamation.

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Michael Harris formerly was Editor for HydroWorld.com.

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