Photo Courtesy Native Fish Society

Willamette River Chinook salmon and steelhead populations have been declining for decades. In recent years, just one to two percent of historic populations have returned to spawn in the Willamette and its tributaries. This decline is due in large part to the presence of thirteen dams in the basin, which are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 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 also create unnatural flows, and impact fish habitat, water quality, and water temperature. Taken together, these impacts have placed the Willamette’s Chinook and steelhead on the brink of extinction.

After years of court battles, we’re now proud to say that there is hope for these priceless species, and for Oregonians who treasure their continued presence in our state. In 2018, NEDC and our partners Native Fish Society and WildEarth Guardians sued the Army Corps, arguing it had failed to take necessary steps under the Endangered Species Act to ensure the survival and recovery of these fish.

Over the last two years we have won a series of legal victories that have provided a new template for managing the Corps-operated dams, and with it a lifeline to recovery for the Willamette’s Chinook and steelhead. First, the Court ruled for NEDC and our co-plaintiffs on all of our ESA claims, finding that the Corps: 1) had failed to carry out several required measures at the dams related to fish passage and water quality; 2) is jeopardizing and unlawfully “taking” Chinook and steelhead; and 3) had unlawfully delayed reinitiating ESA consultation for the species. Then, late last year, the Court issued a final order directing the Corps to immediately undertake several major operational changes at dams throughout the basin, all designed to benefit salmon and steelhead. Further, the Court created an “Expert Panel,” which includes NEDC’s and our partners’ fish experts, which has been meeting to develop additional new measures to benefit fish.

We’re already seeing the impacts of these victories on the ground. Per the Court’s Order, the Corps has implemented several measures to improve fish passage on key tributaries, including new deep drawdowns of reservoirs to help guide migrating juvenile fish downstream. The Corps is also implementing new strategies to improve water temperatures and dissolved gas levels below several dams. These required actions will continue to expand in 2023.

This case represents a historic victory for the Willamette’s embattled Chinook and steelhead. For the first time, the Corps is giving appropriate weight to protecting these threatened species in its operation of the basin’s expansive dam system. With several new measures designed to improve upstream and downstream fish passage, and provide more natural flows and better water quality, there is now real hope for the survival and recovery of these iconic species.

Special thanks to Advocates for the West, who have provided incredible legal representation to NEDC and our partners throughout this case.