Deal could end Trinity River dispute, restore flows for salmon, tribes

Associated Press Writer
The Bakersfield Californian

Tuesday October 14, 2003

A San Joaquin Valley irrigation agency is offering a settlement to a lawsuit that would restore water to the Trinity River in a deal that could end a bitter dispute pitting ancient cultures against modern-day needs and environmental concerns.

The Westlands Water District presented the settlement offer in Sacramento Tuesday to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Hoopa Valley Indian tribe. The tribe claims the district is siphoning too much water to feed farmers and not leaving enough to ensure the survival of salmon - and its culture.

Westlands said its proposal would restore a significant amount of water down the Trinity, only slightly less flow than an Interior Department plan called for in 2000 but enough to keep fields irrigated throughout the Central Valley. The Trinity River, which originates in Northern California's Trinity Alps and flows into the Klamath River, has been diverted for decades to service a fast-growing population in a state where much of the water is located far from where people live and farm.

Congress mandated river restoration in 1992. In 2000, the U.S. Interior department approved a plan to increase the amount of water flowing down the Trinity.

But in December 2002, a federal judge blocked the plan after Westlands and several utility districts sued. The plaintiffs argued that the Interior's plan would have significantly decreased water flows that eventually reach the parched Central Valley and that the agency didn't look at alternative restoration methods.

The judge agreed, noting the agency disregarded federal environmental laws by ignoring effects on farmers and species. He ordered the Interior Department to perform another environmental assessment, which is ongoing.

The Interior Department had planned to move boulders in the river with fast-flowing water releases at certain times of year to create a better salmon habitat.

While the plan floundered, federal officials released about 33 percent of historic flows down the river, less than what the department's original plan called for, but more than the river has received in recent years.

And to fend off future salmon kills - such as the 33,000 salmon deaths that occurred last year in the lower Klamath - then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton arranged for even higher flows down the Trinity River.

But the Hoopa Valley Tribe and the Yurok Tribe, which fishes the Klamath, are still waiting for the full return of water to flow through their reservations and nourish their dying cultures.

Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Clifford Lyle Marshall refused comment about the Westlands settlement offer.

Westlands spokesman Tupper Hull characterized the deal as a good compromise and said it would replenish the river while still providing enough water for agriculture.

"One of the reasons Westlands has taken the lead here is that a small decrease in water (siphoned from the Trinity) can translate into very large decreases of allocations to agriculture," Hull said. "Westlands wants to put the Trinity River dispute behind it."

Westlands encompasses 600,000 acres on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in Fresno and Kings counties and is the largest irrigation agency in the nation to be supplied with water from the federal government.

The district contracts for more than 1 million acre-feet of water annually. California produces more food than any state in the nation.

"The Native American tribes clearly have an interest in the health of the fishery on the Trinity and Westlands is very sensitive to that. That's why we've made this offer," Hull added. "But the mandate from Congress was to restore the Trinity River fishery. It was not to dismantle the Trinity River project.

Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which controls water in the state, said a deal reached sooner rather than later benefits everyone involved.

"We've talked with Westlands in the past and we continue to listen to what they have to say and hopefully we can arrive at the right place for everybody," McCracken said. "Westlands sued because they didn't like the (Interior's) decision and now they're coming back and saying, 'We'll withdraw our lawsuit if you'll do this instead.'

"We'll just have to wait and see."


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