Lawsuit targets shrinkage of Willamette Basin water for salmon

Environmental groups say the Army Corps of Engineers’ reallocation plan will hurt threatened fish species

by Emily Green | March 20, 2020 | Street Roots 

The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a drastic cut to the volume of water stored among its 13 dams and reservoirs in the Willamette River Basin that goes to supporting fish flows. Environmentalists are suing, saying the move violates the Endangered Species Act.

The water reallocation, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court March 12, would further harm the already sparse numbers of spring Chinook and winter steelhead salmon. Both are listed as threatened species under the act.

Attorneys with Advocates for the West filed the lawsuit on behalf of WaterWatch of Oregon, Northwest Environmental Defense Center and WildEarth Guardians. It asks the U.S. District Court for Oregon to halt the Corps’ process of reallocating its water stores until the National Marine Fisheries Service determines how much water the threatened fish species in question need to thrive. Once finalized, the water allocation would stand for 50 years, as it also requires approval from Congress.

In the Upper Willamette River, spring Chinook and winter steelhead populations are on the brink of extinction, and it’s due in large part to the dams’ impact on stream flows, water temperature, sediment and channel complexity.

2 Charts: Wild Spring Chinook Counts & Wild Winter Steelhead Counts
Source: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife review for House Committee on Natural Resources, June 2019

There is a lot of water at stake — 1.6 million acre-feet annually. Just 1 acre-foot is equivalent to 325,851 gallons, or about half an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Currently, about 80,000 acre-feet of the stored water is contracted out for irrigation, and the remainder supports fish flows.

Under the new proposal, the amount going toward commercial and residential uses would increase more than sixfold.

Environmental groups suing to stop the new allocation argue the Corps’ plan shortchanges fish and gives cities and irrigators more water than they need.

“The Corps continues to ignore its responsibilities bestowed upon it by Congress to protect healthy rivers and threatened fish,” Marlies Wierenga, a conservation manager at WildEarth Guardians, said in an announcement. “Oregonians want living rivers with clean water and healthy, abundant runs of wild fish. It’s time for the Corps to realign its priorities.”

The Corps conducted a feasibility study to determine how the 1.6 million acre-feet of water it stores in the basin should be reallocated based on the changing needs of the Willamette Valley. After it released a draft of that study, WaterWatch submitted a comment to the Corps’ Portland district office stating its report “quantifies fish needs solely from the estimated minimum flows necessary to keep two species of fish from going extinct. In contrast, the report estimates future needs for municipal, industrial and irrigation by estimating maximum possible demand.”

WaterWatch of Oregon staff attorney Brian Posewitz said estimates assumed an increase in lawn watering as the population grows but did not account for increased density in residential areas and assumed water use would stay constant at peak levels and that usage would not become more efficient.

When the Corps did its analysis, it considered four allocation options that divvied-up varying amounts of water toward different needs. Posewitz said the Corps ended up going with the option WaterWatch had thought to be the “extreme outlier,” as it only allocated to fish what was left over once agriculture and municipalities were handed the maximum amounts estimated they might need.

This lawsuit is the latest chapter in an ongoing battle over the management of the Corps’ Willamette Basin dams and reservoirs. In 2018, some of the same plaintiffs in this latest suit sued the Corps for failing to take action to protect the Chinook and steelhead salmon species as directed in a 2008 biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The 1.6 million acre-feet of stored water that’s at stake still falls short of the 2 million acre-feet that a consultation between the Corps and National Fisheries had estimated the species actually needs to thrive.

The Army Corps of Engineers Portland District declined to answer questions about its water allocation process in the basin, citing the lawsuit.

Email Senior Staff Reporter Emily Green at Follow her on Twitter @greenwrites.