Three environmental groups followed through on a threat to sue the federal government Tuesday over the decline in wild salmon and steelhead in the Upper Willamette watershed.
The groups say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service have failed to take required steps to improve conditions for the threatened fish.
The lawsuit targets the Willamette watershed's system of dams and its negative impact on fish habitat.
“Federal dam operators in the Willamette River basin must act now to protect our native fish,” said Mark Sherwood, executive director of the Native Fish Society.
The lawsuit comes at an important moment, particularly for winter steelhead, which state biologists fear could go extinct in rivers including the Molalla, Santiam, McKenzie and Middle Fork.
Winter steelhead returned about 16,000 fish each year to the Upper Willamette Basin in the 1970s, according to numbers at Willamette Falls Fish Count. That number dropped to 800 fish in 2017 and 850 this year.
The lawsuit is derived from a legal agreement, called the Biological Opinion, issued in 2008, that essentially requires the Corps to modify dams to improve fish habitat.
The three environmental groups — WildEarth Guardians, Native Fish Society and Northwest Environmental Defense Center — say the Corps has failed in that undertaking.
“Nearly 10 years ago, NMFS determined that the Corps’ operation of the Willamette dams was likely to jeopardize Chinook and steelhead unless significant changes were made,” said Mark Riskedahl, executive director of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center. “NMFS told the Corps that fish passage was a high priority, yet the Corps has dragged its feet in meeting this requirement and others set by NMFS.”
Corps officials rejected that assertion and pointed to $194 million spent to improve habitat in the Upper Willamette.
In January, the Corps rolled out a massive $100 to $250 million plan at Detroit Dam intended to improve conditions for fish in the Santiam River.
Corps spokesman Tom Conning said last November that the agency is committed to actions beneficial to fish, but they have to balance it with what’s “technically feasible and cost-effective.”
“While (there is) focus on the needs of the fish, we continue to balance flood risk management with hydropower generation, irrigation, water quality, fish and wildlife, and recreation,” he said.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 10 years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.