No Changes to Dams Now for Threatened Salmon, Judge Rules

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Operations of the 13 dams along the Willamette River are making it harder for threatened salmon to survive, according to federal judge who ruled Wednesday that there is no need to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to change operations now because the case will require any needed changes in the next year or two.

Environmental groups sued the Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service in March of last year, claiming the dams are responsible for the catastrophic decline of Upper Willamette River steelhead and Chinook salmon, and that the Corps blew past multiple deadlines to enact changes that would help the fish survive.

U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez said Wednesday that the environmental groups’ claims that the Corps’ failure to implement changes under a 2008 biological opinion “is likely a significant factor jeopardizing the long-term existence of those species.”

In its biological opinion, the National Marine Fisheries Service said the Corps could continue to operate the dams while reducing impacts to fish if it immediately implemented a slew of measures to improve fish passage and water quality.

But the Corps didn’t do that, and fish populations continued to decline.

In 2016, the fisheries service issued a status review finding that the continued lack of safe passage past dams and the water quality problems they create were keeping salmon and steelhead from recovering in the Willamette River. Without significant improvements, the service warned, the Chinook population in the middle fork of the Willamette might be lost completely.

Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Wildearth Guardians and Native Fish Society urged Hernandez to order the Corps to improve fish passage this year, to speed up a process that the Corps says will take until 2022 for one dam and 2028 for a second.

Hernandez declined Wednesday, finding that, while the environmentalists had shown the situation was dire, they had not proved that the normal course of litigation – where Hernandez said he would issue any necessary orders within one to two years – would not suffice.

“A close examination … reveals that Plaintiffs are largely correct that many of the most significant actions necessary to improve fish passage and water-quality conditions have been substantially delayed and/or not yet completed,” Hernandez wrote. “The Court also finds plaintiffs have established that the condition of [Upper Willamette River] Chinook and steelhead continues to deteriorate. Although the parties disagree as to the severity of the continued decline of the [Upper Willamette River] Chinook and steelhead, it is undisputed that the salmonids remain threatened.”

But he added: “The record that plaintiffs have assembled, however, falls short of establishing that the species will suffer irreparable harm during the pendency of these proceedings.”

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