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Group threatens suit over Willamette's fish.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

An environmental group promoting the health of the Willamette River says it will sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if the federal agency doesn't come up with a plan to protect fish listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Willamette Riverkeeper, a Portland nonprofit group, sent a letter to the corps on Wednesday warning of its intent to sue. The letter accuses the corps of failing to follow the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. It gives the government agency 60 days to comply.

The environmental group charges that since 1999, when upper Willamette River spring chinook and steelhead were listed as threatened by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the corps has had an obligation to determine how the 13 dams on the river affect the fish.

Dams make passage difficult for young fish migrating to the ocean and subsequently block fish returning from the ocean in search of streams where they can reproduce.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Matt Rabe said he hadn't seen the letter on Wednesday afternoon and couldn't comment on it.

National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman Janet Spears wrote in an e-mail that the corps had submitted a biological assessment in 2000 and that the agencies have been consulting since then. She said the issues are complicated because they also involve other threatened species - bull trout and Oregon chub as well as terrestrial plant and animal species. There is no set timetable for agencies to comply with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, she said. But agencies must consult when any action they take has an effect on threatened or endangered fish, she wrote.

Willamette Riverkeeper is better known as an agency that monitors the well-being of the river, promotes riparian restoration activities and conducts an annual four-day canoe trip known as Paddle Oregon.

Filing a lawsuit against a federal agency that it has worked closely with in the past is an unusual step, said Executive Director Travis Williams.

"The reality is we have been doing outreach and having discussions with the corps, and while legal means are not the first tool in the toolbox, in this case, we're eight years out and the amount of progress we have to show could be much more," he said.

Williams said the declining populations of native stocks of spring chinook and steelhead indicate how tough the dams have been on them.

"These are fish that have thrived here for thousands of years. It should tell us how these systems are functioning that these fish can no longer do that," he said.

Private dam operators in the East have had to reapply for federal permits in recent years and have found a way to balance electricity production and flood control needs while still improving fish passage, Williams said. "If the corps has the capacity to think big and work with folks on habitat restoration in the Willamette, that could have a big effect," he said. "We're talking about a host of actions that could be really beneficial for fish."
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Title Annotation:Environment; Willamette Riverkeeper, which has worked closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, says progress has been too slow
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 15, 2007
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