NEDC, along with our partners Native Fish Society and WildEarth Guardians, have secured a critically important victory for the Willamette River’s threatened salmon and steelhead populations. In August, Chief Judge Hernandez of the District of Oregon found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and National Marine Fisheries Service have violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by failing to take necessary steps to ensure the survival and recovery of these iconic fish. NEDC and its co-plaintiffs, represented by attorneys at Advocates for the West, filed this suit in 2018 asking the Court to compel the Corps to make operational adjustments at Willamette Basin dams to save these species. In its sweeping August decision, the Court ruled in favor of the groups on all of their claims.

Willamette River salmon and steelhead populations have been declining for decades, due in large part to the presence and operation of several Corps-operated dams in the basin. Dams on four key Willamette River tributaries block between 40 to 90% of available spawning habitat, and the dams’ heights and large reservoirs make it nearly impossible for small fish to swim downstream and for adult fish to access spawning habitats upstream. Dam operations create unnatural flows and impact fish habitat, water quality, and water temperature, which increases fish mortality. NEDC and its partners alleged that the Corps has failed to take necessary actions under the ESA to reverse these species’ decline.

In its August ruling, the Court confirmed that the Corps has failed to take required actions at several of its dams related to fish passage, flows, and water quality, and that those failures are causing further harm to salmon and steelhead. NEDC and co-plaintiffs prevailed on all three of their ESA claims, with the Court holding that the Corps: 1) failed to carry out “several of the most important [required] measures” related to fish passage and water quality, 2) is jeopardizing and unlawfully taking Upper Willamette Chinook salmon and steelhead, and 3) significantly delayed reinitiating ESA consultation for the species, “a substantial procedural violation.” In the coming months, the parties will be briefing and arguing the appropriate remedy for these violations.

The Willamette River’s salmon and steelhead populations have immense ecological and cultural importance for western Oregon and the entire Pacific Northwest. This victory will lead to long-needed operational changes at the basin’s dams, and provides a needed lifeline for these invaluable fish.

Thanks to Lizzy Potter and Laurie Rule at Advocates for the West for representing us in this matter.

Read the entire opinion here!

Big Cliff Dam on the North Santiam River.
Photo courtesy of Native Fish Society.