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NW Fishletter #389, January 7, 2019

[2] Groups Seek Court-Ordered Drawdowns For Corps' Willamette Project

Taking a page out of the environmental playbook that led to spilling water over dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, three conservation groups are asking a federal judge to order deep drawdowns, spill and other operational changes at the Willamette Project to benefit Chinook and steelhead listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The Northwest Environmental Defense Center, WildEarth Guardians and the Native Fish Society filed its motion for preliminary injunction in Northwest Environmental Defense Center et al. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers et al. on Nov. 30.

The groups are asking U.S. District Magistrate Judge Jolie Russo to order operational changes at four dams in the Willamette Basin, including a two- to four-week spring spill at Lookout Point Dam, and drawdowns in winter and spring at four dams including Lookout Point to help juvenile fish migrate downstream.

They're also seeking the discharge of cold water through regulating outlets to reduce water temperatures at two dams, and the release of hatchery Chinook above a fifth dam to study spawning success and juvenile migration. Russo gave the defendants until Jan. 18 to respond.

Three of the four dams where operational changes are sought--Lookout Point, Detroit and Cougar--have a total generating capacity of 245 MW, while the fourth dam, Fall Creek, is not a hydroelectric project. All are part of the 13 dams that make up the Willamette Project, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with generated power marketed by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

Corps spokesman Tom Conning said his agency is working with the U.S. Department of Justice to evaluate the motion. "I can tell you it would impact power production," he told NW Fishletter, adding that the amount of lost generation would vary at each project, and would change depending on the water year.

Marlies Wierenga, Pacific Northwest conservation manager for WildEarth Guardians, said she doesn't know how much power would be lost if the injunction is approved. "Part of the challenge is that BPA is reliant on power revenue from some of the dams, and they're struggling financially," she said.

She acknowledged that their request for a preliminary injunction references two well-known injunctions requiring federal agencies to spill water at eight Columbia and Snake river dams, which prevailed after review by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The Columbia is a big deal, but at the same time, there are other rivers too that have these same concerns that are being run by federal agencies that could make changes, but they aren't doing them," she said. "It seemed to us some simple modifications could happen, but the Corps wasn't moving forward."

The groups initially filed the lawsuit in March against the Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service; the City of Salem and Marion County were later approved as defendant-intervenors.

The plaintiffs claim that the agencies failed to reinitiate consultations after the Corps failed to meet deadlines laid out in its 2008 biological opinion (BiOp). They claim that dams block 40 to 90 percent of the habitat in four subbasins of the Willamette River, and that large reservoirs and high-head dams make it "nearly impossible" for juvenile fish to migrate downstream.

Over the past 10 years, "the Corps has routinely dodged the agreed-upon actions, missed deadlines, and sidelined state and federal agencies to avoid improving fish passage, flows, and water quality at the dams," the groups said in a joint statement.

And while the agencies have since agreed to reinitiate consultations under the Endangered Species Act, a process expected to take until 2023, "the Corps has refused to take steps necessary to stem the fish's rapid decline," the statement said, a claim echoed by the motion, which states that "no significant changes have occurred to operation of the Willamette dams to benefit fish."

The Corps disagrees with these claims.

Conning pointed to several fish projects that the agency has completed or that are now underway to improve both upstream and downstream passage. Those projects are listed in a February news release, when the agency had spent nearly $200 million to help spring Chinook and winter steelhead in the upper Willamette recover. Required under its 2008 BiOp, completed actions include construction of a water temperature control tower and adult collection facilities, drawing down Fall Creek Reservoir to help fish migrate downstream, and redesigning a weir at Foster Dam.

Conning said an environmental impact statement is necessary to build another temperature control tower on Detroit Dam, which is well underway. The Corps is also working on several other projects to address juvenile migration. However, he said, the agency must balance its mission to recover fish with other benefits of the Willamette Project authorized by Congress, including power generation, recreation, irrigation and flood control.

The requested injunction seeks only to prioritize the needs of salmon and steelhead that "do not impair flood control or human health and safety," the plaintiffs said in their motion, which also acknowledges that dams aren't the only problem that upper Willamette River salmonids face.

"When added to the detrimental effects of the Willamette Project, cumulative effects such as climate change, sea lion predation, and poor ocean conditions have increased the risk of extinction," the motion states. "Higher water temperatures and changes to water flows due to climate change are increasingly having an adverse effect on salmon and steelhead, which, when added to the effects of the dams, put the species at greater risk."

WildEarth's Wierenga said her conservation group is concerned about the added carbon that would likely result from reducing the amount of electricity produced at hydroelectric projects under the injunction they've requested.

"It's a difficult thing to consider, but these are tradeoffs, and in this situation, the fish are in such dire shape and some of the things we are asking for are not big impacts to power," she said.

She added that WildEarth Guardians fully supports continued access to hydropower, and is seeking only a temporary modification of operations rather than a permanent removal of the dams. -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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