The Oregon Farm Bureau
is keeping a close eye on a new lawsuit filed March 13 by
three environmental groups, which seeks to protect Chinook
salmon and winter steelhead in the Upper Willamette River.
Three environmental groups are suing the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries
Service for failing to protect dwindling populations of wild
Chinook salmon and winter steelhead in Oregon’s Upper
The complaint, filed March 13 in Portland by
WildEarth Guardians, the Native Fish Society and Northwest
Environmental Defense Center, accuses the agencies of
“missed deadlines, postponed actions and poor
communications” over the past decade in managing each of 13
Willamette Project dams for the benefit of fish.
The dams are the primary cause of salmon and
steelhead declines in the Upper Willamette Basin, blocking
hundreds of miles of spawning habitat and degrading water
quality and habitat downstream, according to the lawsuit.
Research conducted by the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration shows that, historically,
around 325,000 Chinook salmon and 220,000 winter steelhead
swamp up Willamette Falls to spawn in the upper river basin.
Last year, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife counted
822 steelhead at Willamette Falls — a startling decline of
ODFW also counted 36,628 spring Chinook and
3,462 fall Chinook in 2017. However, the groups contend that
just 5,880 of the fish were wild born, with the rest raised
Marlies Wierenga, Pacific Northwest
conservation manager for WildEarth Guardians, said
hatchery-born salmon are different from wild salmon at a
genetic level. Hatchery fish are less disease-resistant,
don’t reproduce as well and are less adaptable to the
environment, she said.
“Basically, their entire resilience is
diminished,” Wierenga said.
Both Upper Willamette steelhead and Chinook
salmon were listed as threatened under the Endangered
Species Act in 1999. In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries
Service issued a biological opinion directing the Corps to
make structural and operational changes at the dams to stem
fish losses. However, the groups argue the Corps still has
not fulfilled many obligations set forth in the BiOp.
“Nearly 10 years ago, NMFS determined the
Corps’ operation of the Willamette dams was likely to
jeopardize Chinook and steelhead unless significant changes
to the Willamette dam operations were made,” said Mark
Riskdahl, 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.”
Spokesmen for the Corps and National Marine
Fisheries Service declined to comment on pending litigation.
The Willamette Project also stores 80,431
acre-feet of irrigation water for 42,675 acres of farmland.
Changes to the system could have a significant impact on
downstream farmers, said Mary Anne Cooper, public policy
counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau.
“ESA lawsuits around federal system
management are very terrifying for farmers,” Cooper said.
“We know how quickly they can change the status quo if we’re
Cooper said the Farm Bureau is keeping a
close eye on the litigation, which could have a ripple
effect on water allocation. Marion County leads Oregon in
total value of agricultural products as of the most recent
2012 Census of Agriculture, at more than $592 million.
While Cooper argues the system is already
being managed largely for fish, the lawsuit claims the Corps
has “routinely dodged actions, skipped deadlines and
sidelined state and federal agencies to avoid improving fish
passage at the dams on the Willamette.”
Wierenga, with WildEarth Guardians, said the
dramatic declines in historical fish numbers represent a
failure in action and the lawsuit is intended to spur
“It would be a heartbreaking loss if we
Oregonians let these culturally important fish, which have
adapted and thrived here for generations, slip away from
existence on our watch,” Wierenga said.