Court orders Trinity River flow increase

SACRAMENTO – In a landmark decision greeted with jubilation by representatives of the Hoopa and Yurok tribes, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the release of river flows for more fish habitat. The decision would compel the federal Bureau of Reclamation to release 47 percent of river flows for fish and 53 percent for agriculture and power.

“We’re just elated,” said Clifford Lyle Marshall, chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. “Hoopa is a very happy town. The timing of the decision surprised us, since we were told the decision could go either way.”

The court upheld the federal government’s December 2000 Trinity River Record of Decision (ROD) to increase water flows for fish. Prior to the ROD, up to 90 percent of the river had been diverted to agriculture and power users, resulting in dramatic declines in salmon and steelhead populations.

“Nothing remains to prevent the full implementation of the ROD, including its complete flow plan for the Trinity River,” the court ruled July 13.

“This decision is awesome,” said Marshall. “The river is a vital part of the economy of our tribe and the northern California economy. The decision gives the river the priority it deserved in the first place. It means that the river will get water, salmon runs will come back, tourism will return, recreational fishermen will come back, people will be eating in the local restaurants, and the commercial salmon fishery may be sustained.”

Although Marshall said the court made its decision based on the law and over 20 years of scientific studies, the outpouring of support for Trinity River restoration by the public, newspapers and politicians throughout the state had a lot to do with the victory.

“It wasn’t a case of Indians versus farmers,” emphasized Marshall. “The people of California raised their voice to support the Trinity River. The river should be regarded as a national treasure. We had a great alliance of people, with lot of efforts on many fronts. Public opinion drives public policy – and the people of California decided that for a small price, the Trinity River could be restored.”

Although this decision portends well for the future of salmon fisheries, the prospects for this year’s salmon runs on the Klamath and Trinity Rivers are looking dire because the federal government granted 100 percent of contract flows to agricultural water users in the Klamath Basin of southern Oregon, according to Fletcher. The Trinity, which originates in northern California, flows west into Klamath River.

The Department of Interior, under pressure from Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove to curry favor among agribusiness for the Republicans, decided to cut off flows for fish and divert them to subsidized agribusiness in the Klamath Basin in 2001. The Bush administration’s change in water policy resulted in the largest fish kill in U.S. history when over 34,000 salmon perished in September 2002. The majority of these fish were destined for the Trinity River, the Klamath’s largest tributary.

The Westlands Water District, in conjunction with the Northern California Power Association (NCPA) and Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) filed suit against the federal government in 2000 right after former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt issued his ROD. However, a broad coalition of Indian Tribes, commercial fishermen, recreational anglers and environmental groups forced SMUD and three members of the NCPA – Palo Alto, the Port of Oakland and Alameda to pullout of the suit.

Whether Westlands, the largest federal irrigation project in the country, will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court is unknown at this time.

Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, said, “The bottom line is that the fish won in this round. Now there is a need to defend this ruling and to make sure that the ROD is implementing the decision.”

Tom Stokely, senior resource planner of Trinity County, was optimistic about the outcome of the decision.

Stokely said that the decision, when implemented, would result in an approximate doubling of the total volume of water released down the river. “Salmon need water to thrive, so this will have a very beneficial effect on the fishery,” he noted.

The author can be reached at pww @ pww.org.