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NW Fishletter #380, April 2, 2018

[7] Groups Sue Feds, Alleging Harm To Fish From Failure To Follow Willamette Project BiOp

Three environmental groups are asking a federal judge to order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service to immediately reinitiate ESA consultations for the Willamette Project, which includes 13 dams on upper Willamette River tributaries.

On March 13, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, WildEarth Guardians and the Native Fish Society filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland claiming that both the Corps and NMFS are violating the ESA by failing to redo a BiOp currently in place through 2023. NMFS issued a BiOp in 2008 directing the Corps to take numerous actions to reduce the impacts of the dams on Chinook salmon and steelhead.

The suit makes good the group's promise in November to sue if the Corps and NMFS didn't take action "to develop a new plan to reform dam management in the basin before it is too late to save these iconic species."

In the suit, Northwest Environmental Defense Center et al. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers et al. [18-437], the groups said the Corps has failed to meet many of the BiOp's deadlines, and that new studies include information that should prompt the agencies to start the process over.

Chinook salmon and steelhead in the upper Willamette River and tributaries were listed as threatened under the ESA in 1999.

The plaintiffs say that historically, the upper Willamette supported hundreds of thousands of Chinook, but populations have declined dramatically. In 2016, only 11,600 wild Chinook entered the Columbia River mouth, and only 7,000 were counted at Willamette Falls, their lawsuit states. Wild Chinook counts in the Willamette have averaged fewer than 10,000 since 2010, it says.

Wild winter steelhead have also seen declines, and the population plummeted in 2017, the lawsuit claims. Numbers passing Willamette Falls have averaged about 5,600 over the last 10 years, and only 822 upper Willamette River steelhead passed the falls last year.

The principal purpose of the dams is flood control, although eight generate power, and the stored water is used for irrigation, recreation, and fish and wildlife. The lawsuit alleges several of the dams have no upstream passage for returning adults, and are also problematic for juvenile fish facing very tall dams on their migration downstream.

According to the suit, the dams cut off more than 90 percent of the spawning habitat in the Middle Fork Willamette, about 70 percent of the habitat in the North and South Santiam subbasins, and 16 percent in the McKenzie subbasin. For steelhead, the lawsuit claims, about 22 percent of the habitat above Willamette Falls is blocked.

To help mitigate for losses, the Corps funds five hatcheries operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. But, the groups contend, hatchery fish can hurt attempts to recover wild fish because they occupy limited spawning habitat, compete for resources and interbreed.

They claim deadlines have been missed on some BiOp mitigation measures, which include requirements for flow management, water quality, fish passage, irrigation contracts, hatcheries, habitat, and research and monitoring.

"The Corps' delays and failure to implement crucial Reasonable and Prudent Alternative measures--particularly those designed to address upstream and downstream fish passage and harmful water temperatures and dissolved gas levels--means Upper Willamette River Chinook and steelhead have not and will not receive the benefits that NMFS assumed would occur from successful implementation of the Reasonable and Prudent Alternative over the biological opinion's fifteen-year term," the lawsuit claims.

The groups also claim new research shows a higher mortality of pre-spawn adult Chinook in the upper Willamette than what scientists previously believed, and than in other river systems; sea lion predation is a larger problem than previously thought; and stray rates from trap-and-haul methods are higher than previously known. These changes should also prompt a new ESA consultation, the lawsuit claims.

Federal defendants have not yet responded to the complaint. -K.C. Mehaffey

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NW Fishletter is produced by Energy NewsData.
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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