Judge orders dam improvements to aid salmon in Oregon

Judge orders dam improvements to aid salmon in Oregon
© (Supercaliphotolistic/iStock)

An Oregon federal judge has ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make improvements to the Willamette River Basin to aid the flow of salmon and steelhead.

In a ruling last Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez ordered the Army Corps to perform a deep drawdown of the Cougar Reservoir on the South Fork McKenzie River and spill operations at Foster Dam in the South Fork Santiam River.

The Army Corps of Engineers operates 13 federally-owned dams and facilities within the basin.

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Advocates for the West, which filed the suit in 2018 on behalf of several wildlife and fish societies, said in a statement Tuesday that the Army Corp’s inaction led to declines in population for Chinook salmon and winter steelhead.

The group says that between 40 to 90 percent of spawning habitat has been blocked.

The issue goes back to 2008, when the National Marines Fisheries Services laid out a series of steps that the Corps could take to avoid jeopardizing the existence and recovery of the salmon and steelhead.

Hernandez wrote that the Corps hasn’t begun any of the steps required, and would not meet any future deadlines for doing so.

The court ruled in August 2020 that the Corps was violating the Endangered Species Act because operation of the basin was jeopardizing the survival and recovery of the fish. The state of Oregon largely supported the plaintiffs in the case, Hernandez pointed out. 

Hernandez wrote that the actions are “measures that the Corps has failed to carry out, have already undergone environmental consultation, and were deemed necessary” to avoid jeopardizing the fish.

In a statement to The Hill, the Army Corps of Engineers said it would “carefully review the Court’s final opinion to ensure compliance,” adding that the drawdown at the Cougar Dam and increased spill operations at Foster Dam will begin in the fall.

"We do not anticipate these actions impacting our flood risk management mission. We take our Endangered Species Act obligations seriously and are committed to taking actions that will benefit ESA-listed salmon and steelhead while continuing to work on finding solutions that balance our authorized purposes,” the agency said.