Army Corps Failed to Protect Willamette River Salmon, Judge Rules

District court Judge Marco Hernandez ruled this week that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has failed to meet deadlines under the 2008 Willamette River Biological Opinion Plan concerning the health of native species and water quality in the Willamette River basin.  

As the Statesman Journal reported, the case was brought against the Corps in 2018 by WildEarth Guardians, Native Fish Society, and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center (NEDC), and it was found that the Corps is behind on the necessary timeline to complete the work to properly protect the native fish species and the river basin’s water quality.   

The case specifically concerns some of Oregon’s dams: Detroit Dam on the North Santiam River constructed in 1953, Cougar Dam on the McKenzie river in 1964, Lookout Point Dam on the Willamette River in 1953, and Blue River Dam in 1969. These dams were built for flood control, municipal and agricultural water supply, recreation, and hydroelectric power, but the structures have affected the native incubation and habitats of native fish species and changed the temperatures of the rivers.  

Two species were listed as threatened under the Environmental Species Act of 1999 in an attempt to protect them: the Upper Willamette River Chinook salmon and steelhead. Willamette Riverkeeper and NEDC sued the Corps in 2007 for lacking a biological opinion and reached a settlement with them in 2008 to make changes to water temperature and create fish passages.  

It was found that the dams blocked 70 percent of Chinook and 33 percent of steelhead habitats, almost driving them to extinction.   

The Corps most urgent projects include creating downstream fish passages at Cougar, Detroit, Big Cliff, Lookout Point, and Dexter Dams, as well as controlling water temperature at the Detroit Dam. The Corps is not on schedule to properly complete any of these projects, as the deadline for water temperature control at Detroit was 2009, the fish passages for Cougar Dam was December 2014, the fish passages for Lookout Point is December 2021, and the fish passages for Detroit Dam is 2023.   

The environmental groups also argued that the Corps didn’t develop protocols to protect water quality during emergencies, which ultimately resulted in the toxic algae incident in Detroit Lake in 2018 and negatively affected Salem’s drinking water.   

Hernandez also ruled that the Corps did not meet deadlines prescribed by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the 2008 biological opinion.   

Hernandez wrote, “Far short of moving towards recovery, the Corps is pushing the UWR Chinook and steelhead even closer to the brink of extinction.”  

The two sides will have to come to an agreement as a result of Hernandez’s ruling and figure out what measures the Corps needs to take to until it can employ the changes necessary for the native species’ protection and survival.   

By Cara Nixon