Willamette River Salmon and Steelhead

Willamette River Salmon and Steelhead

Current Status:

Case Title:

Staff attorney(s):
Laurie Rule
Lizzy Potter


Native Fish Society

Northwest Environmental Defense Center

WildEarth Guardians

To Protect:



Date won/settled:
August 17, 2020


Case Information:

September 1, 2021 – U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez issued a final opinion and order directing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service to immediately undertake new measures at dams in the Willamette basin to prevent the extinction of threatened Upper Willamette River wild spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead.

In the final order, Judge Hernandez found that these measures were necessary because, “[a]s evidenced by the listed species’ continuing decline, the Corps’ failure to provide adequate fish passage and mitigate water quality issues is causing substantial, irreparable harm to the salmonids.”

December 18, 2020 – Advocates for the West filed our reply brief and two expert declarations in the continued remedial phase of this case. With the Army Corps of Engineers’ long history neglecting its duties under the Endangered Species Act, we argue that the Court should defer to outside fisheries experts who prioritize the needs of the fish to determine which measures will most benefit the Chinook salmon and winter steelhead.

October 16, 2020 – Advocates for the West filed our remedy proposal, opening brief, and expert declarations in the remedial phase of this case. Our proposed injunction encompasses multiple measures aimed at reducing harm to the wild spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead from the most significant problems related to the operation of the Willamette Project— fish passage and water quality.

August 17, 2020 – Chief Judge Hernandez of the District of Oregon ruled in favor of Upper Willamette River wild spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead, finding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) failed to take necessary steps to ensure the survival and recovery of these iconic fish in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

December 13, 2019 – Advocates for the West filed our reply brief in this case.

Upper Willamette River wild spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead are facing the threat of extinction due largely to dam operations in Oregon’s Willamette River basin. Advocates for the West filed an emergency injunction in federal court to compel the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) to make immediate operational changes at four of these dams.

Advocates for the West is seeking an order requiring the Corps to take immediate measures to reduce mortality and harm to these iconic fish. Such measures include:

  • Prioritizing dam operations for the benefit of the threatened fish except as needed for flood control and human health.
  • Providing deeper reservoir drawdowns at Detroit, Cougar, Fall Creek, and Lookout Point dams to aid fish passage.
  • Regulating outlets to discharge cooler water at Lookout Point and Detroit dams.
  • Improving monitoring and coordination with state and federal agencies.

March 13, 2018 – Advocates for the West filed suit against the US Army Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service. Our suit challenges agency operation and maintenance of the Willamette River Basin Flood Control Project (Willamette Project) for violating the Endangered Species Act. The current operation of the Willamette Project’s dams and reservoirs cause significant harm to Upper Willamette River Chinook salmon and steelhead by blocking hundreds of miles of spawning habitat and degrading water quality and habitat downstream of the dams.

November 2, 2017 – Advocates for the West warned federal water managers of our intent to sue to protect threatened Upper Willamette River Chinook and steelhead from harm caused by numerous dams throughout the Upper Willamette River basin in Oregon. We warned the Corps that the agency must do more to protect these imperiled species from extinction.

Historically, around 300,000 Chinook and 200,000 steelhead made their way up Willamette Falls to spawn in the upper river basins. This year, an estimated 5,000 Chinook and 822 steelhead returned – 99% less than historical numbers. A major cause of the species’ precipitous decline is the Corps’ operation of thirteen dams on the Upper Willamette River and its tributaries. These tall dams and their large reservoirs block up to 90% of spawning habitat on some rivers and make it nearly impossible for fish to migrate up and downstream.

In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined that the Corps was likely to jeopardize the survival and recovery of these threatened fish species unless the agency made substantial changes to its dams, reservoirs, water management, and hatcheries. While the Corps has made some progress, it has delayed or missed key deadlines to improve conditions for these fish, most notably requirements to provide downstream passage for juvenile fish through the agency’s dams and reservoirs. As a result, these species have slipped even closer to extinction. We are asking the Corps to work expeditiously with NMFS to develop a new plan to reform dam management in the basin before it is too late to save these iconic species.

If the Corps fails to take action in response to our notice letter within 60 days, we will keep fighting by filing suit to protect these imperiled wild fish from the threat of extinction.