Court approves dam changes

Cougar on list for deep drawdown


December 30, 2021 | View PDF

EUGENE: A federal court approved this month details on the “how” of fish passage, drawdowns and spill designed to aid salmon and steelhead passage at Willamette River dams, even as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing a new environmental impact statement for the agency’s 13 Willamette Valley Project dams.

Although it has filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Corps already is complying with the U.S. District Court’s injunction for the interim actions that the agency is to initiate while it is completing the EIS and reinitiating consultation with NOAA Fisheries on a new biological opinion. A draft EIS is expected next fall. The Corps will not say when or whether it will act on the appeal.

U.S. District Court Judge Marco Hernandez approved several “Notice of the Expert Panel’s Response to Injunction Action” in December, all detailed descriptions of interim actions the Corps must take at many of its Willamette basin dams to protect threatened wild upper Willamette River spring chinook and winter steelhead.

The court-approved interim actions have been proposed by the expert panel, a group composed of plaintiff’s experts, two National Marine Fisheries Service biologists, two Corps employees, and two “ad hoc” federal experts. In his Sept. 1, 2021 final Opinion and Order, the judge charged the expert panel with drafting the implementation plans for each Willamette River sub-basin along with the details for each of the required interim actions and he set timelines for the expert panel to complete plans for the remaining actions. The original court case was first filed by conservation groups in 2018.

“The expert panel has spent the past five months working through various interim operations for the various Willamette dams and reservoir operations,” said Jennifer Fairbrother, conservation director for the Native Fish Society, one of the plaintiffs in the court case. “The expert panel is tasked with working out the ‘how’ for each of these ordered actions.”

Some of interim actions approved by Hernandez are a deep drawdown at Cougar Dam, adult outplanting, spring spill and juvenile passage at Green Peter Dam on the Middle Santiam River, a tributary of the Willamette;; spring spill and the use of regulating outlets at Lookout Point Dam on the Middle Fork of the Willamette River; and the use of temperature control outlets at Detroit and Big Cliff dams on the North Santiam River. All were requirements of his Sept. 1 final order, but the expert panel recently provided the details on how to do it.

Some of the recommendations include an evaluation of landslide potential if a deep drawdown of Lookout Point is ordered for next fall, Fairbrother said. Also coming up are spring passage operations at other dams for which the panel will be fleshing out the details over the next several months.

Corps spokesperson Tom Conning said the agency “takes its Endangered Species Act obligations seriously and is committed to taking actions that will benefit ESA-listed salmon and steelhead while continuing to work on finding solutions that balance our authorized purposes.

“We’ve begun deep drawdowns at Cougar and Fall Creek reservoirs, increased spill operations at Foster Dam and extended water temperature management operations at Detroit Dam,” he said. “We do not anticipate these actions impacting our flood risk management mission.”

In addition, he said, the Corps will delay the refill of Cougar and Fall Creek reservoirs and conduct spill operations at Foster Dam beginning in the spring of 2022, as required by the Court’s injunction.


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