Four years after a request from the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, the federal government has decided, per a solicitor's review, that the county does indeed have the right to an annual 50,000 acre-feet of water it was promised back when the Trinity River was dammed.
At the urging of Congressman Jared Huffman, apparently, the federal Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Reclamation (which controls the flow of water out of the Trinity River dam system) made its internal legal opinion
“Humboldt County’s annual right to 50,000 acre feet of water from Trinity Lake is not a close call – it was explicitly guaranteed by statute and in a federal contract six decades ago, but these commitments have been ignored by the federal government,” Huffman said in a press release.
The bureau has been caught between Humboldt County and North Coast tribes, who have repeatedly called for additional water releases in the dry years since a 2002 Klamath River fish kill, and farmers from the Central Valley who've enjoyed Trinity River water for irrigation since the river was dammed in the 1950s.
The recent legal opinion
clarifies that the 50,000 acre feet of water Humboldt County bargained for is in addition
to other North Coast rights to Trinity River water.
Read the full press release below, and read the Bureau of Reclamation's opinion
WASHINGTON—Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) today wholeheartedly welcomed the U.S. Interior Department’s disclosure of its internal legal opinion that outlines Humboldt County’s right to water from the Trinity River to protect salmon runs on the lower Klamath River during dry years. The Interior Solicitor’s opinion analyzes and clarifies the authority Humboldt County bargained for in the 1955 legislation that led to the damming and diversion of the Trinity River as part of the Central Valley Project.
“Humboldt County’s annual right to 50,000 acre feet of water from Trinity Lake is not a close call – it was explicitly guaranteed by statute and in a federal contract six decades ago, but these commitments have been ignored by the federal government,” Huffman said. “I’m gratified that the Solicitor thoroughly examined this issue and that the Interior Department heeded my requests to publicly release the solicitor’s findings. The disclosure of the Solicitor’s legal opinion confirms the position I have argued for the past two years and is an important step toward honoring the promise Congress made 60 years ago.”
"Humboldt County welcomes the long-awaited determination that we, and other downstream users, will be receiving not less than 50,000 AF annually, in accordance with our 1959 contract with the Bureau of Reclamation,” said Humboldt County Supervisor Ryan Sundberg. “We look forward to taking the next step to determining uses for this water, and coordinating flow releases with resource agencies that will best benefit our North Coast communities."
The solicitor’s opinion is the most thorough legal analysis done on the issue to date, and changes the Interior Department’s previous policy that the county’s contractual right to 50,000 acre feet of water was subsumed by existing releases meant to preserve fisheries in the Trinity River. The opinion makes clear that Humboldt County’s water is in addition to those flows and can be used to improve conditions for migrating salmon on the lower Klamath River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in several years since the disastrous fish kill on the lower Klamath has used Trinity River water for that purpose, but it has declined to fully articulate the legal bases for such releases. Central Valley water users have challenged those actions in federal court, and the court has repeatedly told Reclamation that it must specifically explain the legal bases for use of the water.
In a series of letters and meetings over the past two years, Huffman pushed the U.S. Interior Department to draft and issue the opinion acknowledging the 1955 Act and the 1959 contract giving Humboldt County the right to 50,000 acre feet of water.
“While this authority should have been acknowledged years ago, I am pleased that our arguments on behalf of Humboldt County, the county’s hard work on the issue, and the efforts by the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk tribes have finally paid off,” Huffman continued. “This water is vital to the fisheries that my district’s tribes and commercial and sport fishermen depend on, and I am happy to see this important step toward fulfilling the pledge Congress made to Humboldt County six decades ago.”
This post was updated to clarify the legal opinion, not decision, was released by the Department of the Interior.