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NW Fishletter #393, May 6, 2019

[11] Corps Announces Plan to Develop New EIS for Willamette Projects

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is developing a new environmental impact statement (EIS) to ensure operations at all 13 Corps' dams and reservoirs in the Willamette Valley meet Endangered Species Act requirements.

The notice of intent to prepare an EIS, published April 1 in the Federal Registrar, marks the start of a scoping period during which comments on what should be addressed in the EIS can be submitted by June 28.

The agency also expects to host numerous public meetings before developing and releasing a draft EIS in the fall or winter of 2020.

Of the 13 dams, nine generate electricity with a total capacity of just over 400 MW.

The last EIS for the Willamette Valley projects was completed in 1980, but major changes since then--including the threatened status of upper Willamette River spring Chinook and winter steelhead--prompted the Corps to redo the process.

The announcement came the same week that federal attorneys argued against a court-ordered preliminary injunction--requested by three environmental groups--to change operations at some of the Corps' projects to help the Endangered Species Act-listed fish. U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez heard oral arguments on April 4 in Northwest Environmental Defense Center et al., v U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, et al., and is expected to issue a written decision.

In an email response to NW Fishletter, Corps spokeswoman Sarah Bennett said her agency's decision to prepare a new EIS is separate from its earlier decision to reinitiate consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service for a new biological opinion--initially sought by the lawsuit.

Knowledge and conditions have "changed significantly since the last overall environmental analysis of the system was completed almost 40 years ago," she wrote. "Laws, regulations and operating considerations and constraints have changed greatly over the last 40 years. During that time, we have conducted project-specific NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analyses, and we have determined that it is time to take another look at the system as a whole," she added.

The Corps will now combine the two processes: consultation for a new BiOp, which it had already agreed to do, and development of a new EIS, she wrote. The new EIS will not affect projects already underway, such as downstream passage facilities at Cougar and Detroit dams, Bennett said. "These projects are currently under independent NEPA review processes that we expect to complete before we issue the draft system-wide EIS," she wrote.

Jennifer Fairbrother, campaign and Columbia regional director of Native Fish Society--one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit--said no one was expecting the Corps's decision to completely redo the EIS. "We are cautiously encouraged that they are making this a public process, and we look forward to engaging on all these fronts," she told NW Fishletter.

The groups realize the process to develop a new EIS and then a new BiOp will take time--five years at least, she said. They are still asking a federal judge to order immediate operational changes, including drawdowns and spill, to ensure upper Willamette River Chinook and steelhead can survive in the interim.

In addition to asking for operational changes, she said, the groups want to resolve the issue of priorities--specifically whether the Corps has the authority to prioritize hydroelectric operations above fish recovery. "The thing that we feel is important from a standpoint of recovery is that the Army Corps take a hard look at the assumptions they are using to constrain the operation of the system," she said. "They've tried for decades to fulfill all of these purposes, and the result has been the decline of these species." The groups would like to see the Corps change or even eliminate hydro-production operations at some of the dams to ensure that the needs of fish are met.

Bennett, in her email, wrote that the Corps has different authorities at each of the dams, with purposes that include flood risk management, hydropower, irrigation, municipal and industrial water supply, water quality, recreation, fish and wildlife, and navigation.

"Our 13 inter-related dams and reservoirs in the Willamette Basin are a complex system that balances the priorities of the region," she wrote. Flood risk management and human life and safety are given primary consideration. Outside of flood season, the agency stores and releases water in accordance with a specific water control diagram, known as a rule curve.

Since the dams were built, they have prevented more than $25 billion in flood damages to the Willamette Valley, where--including Portland--about 70 percent of Oregon's population lives, the agency says. But the dams also block a substantial amount of Chinook and steelhead spawning habitat, and the many modifications and changes at individual dams have yet to resolve fish passage problems.

"This is an opportunity to have a conversation with the public and other resource agencies about the benefits and trade-offs of different approaches to operating and maintaining the system to meet multiple purposes and Endangered Species Act requirements," Mike Turaski, the Corps' Willamette Valley Systems Operations EIS project manager said in a news release. "Professionally, it's an interesting challenge and one that doesn't come along too often, to evaluate a system that is so complex and important to the public."

Written comments to help determine the scope of the EIS can be sent to: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District, P.O. Box 2946, Attn: CENWP-PME-E, Portland, OR 97208-2946, or by email to -K.C. Mehaffey

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