Trinity River Under Siege

Trump administration, reservoir project threaten North Coast rivers


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While local tribes celebrated a federal appellate court ruling last month upholding their senior water rights on the Klamath River, a trio of threats facing the Trinity River combine to paint a foreboding picture for local salmon populations.

"Just the status quo is a risk to the river and the fishery," said Thomas Stokely, a retired Trinity County planner who currently co-manages the nonprofit Save California Salmon and has spent more than three decades working on Trinity River water issues.

But conditions are far from status quo, as a seeming sweetheart deal for the nation's largest agricultural water supplier, a new reservoir project and what environmental groups charge is a flawed biological opinion supporting a Trump administration water plan all threaten to siphon more Trinity River water to other parts of the state.

"All of these things are calling for more delivery of Trinity River water (to the south)," Stokely said. "As Trinity Lake is drawn down during drought years, it will be drawn down more quickly and it won't recover. Sooner and sooner, it will be drawn down to a mud puddle that will be too warm to save the salmon."

And that would, in turn, have devastating consequences for the Klamath River, which counts on the Trinity — its principal tributary — to deliver an influx of cold water to its lower reaches.

The Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes both issued celebratory press releases last week after the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the case of Baley v. United States, which was filed in 2001 by Klamath Irrigation Project irrigators who charged the Bureau of Reclamation acted improperly when it halted water deliveries that summer in the face of a drought. But the court ruled in the federal government's favor, finding that the Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Klamath tribes have senior, federally reserved water rights that predate those of the irrigators' and require enough in-stream water to ensure the continued existence of tribal trust species, including salmon.

"This decision is very important to define our rights in the basin vis-à-vis other interests," said Yurok General Counsel Amy Cordalis in a press release. "By definitively affirming that our water rights ensure, at a minimum, the persistence of the (Endangered Species Act) listed species, rather than fighting irrigators or the federal agencies about the existence of those rights, we can move forward in determining what water the ailing fish populations need. This is a key step forward in reclaiming and restoring the Klamath River ecosystem."

The decision — though appealable to the Supreme Court — is a huge win for the tribes that have been enmeshed in almost two decades of litigation on the issue but it remains to be seen whether it might set a precedent for the Trinity River, where threats are mounting on several fronts.

Perhaps first and foremost, the U.S. Department of the Interior is currently mulling whether to agree to permanently give the Westlands Water District in Central California up to 1.15 million acre-feet of water annually, or roughly enough to supply 2 million California families. Under the terms of the deal, Westlands — which serves some of the nation's wealthiest corporate farms and sells surplus water to nearby municipalities at a heft profit — would pay a little more than $300 million to reimburse the costs of erecting the dams and canals that transport the water and are collectively known as the Central Valley Water Project.

The project, which included the construction of Lewiston Dam and the creation of Trinity Lake in 1961, was carried out specifically to provide Trinity River water to Central Valley farmers (through Westlands) via the Sacramento River. The trouble is the Bureau of Reclamation has six times more water rights than there is water in the Trinity River, according to Stokely, prompting the term "paper water" and the steady stream of fights and litigation over who gets what and what's left over for fish.

Stokely and other environmental groups contend that entering into a contract to forever give Westlands the full amount of water it was able to pull in 1963 is simply bad policy and gives the district a prominent seat at the table in all future water fights.

Some have also argued that the deal is the result of a conflict of interest years in the making, as Interior Secretary David Bernhardt's lobbying firm made $1.3 million over a five-year period working for Westlands prior to his being appointed to a position in the Interior Department. In fact, Bernhardt's lobbying efforts have been credited with Congress' approval in 2016 of a law that paved the way for the types of permanent water contracts Westlands is now looking to reel in.

North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman has been sharply critical of the deal, saying, "The Interior Department needs to look out for the public interest, and not just serve the financial interests of their former lobbying clients." (An interior spokesperson, meanwhile, has maintained the Westlands contract was delegated to Bureau of Reclamation staffers and Bernhardt has not been involved.)

A public comment period on the contract is open until Jan. 8 and comments can be emailed to Erma Leal at

Meanwhile, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 10 will consider whether to begin the process of withdrawing its stated support of the Sites Reservoir project, a proposed $5 billion off-stream storage reservoir that would collect winter flows from the Sacramento River and store them west of Colusa. The board penned a letter last year expressing support for the project but asking for reassurances that it wouldn't impact the Trinity River's health or the county's rights to 50,000 acre-feet annually of its flows. Those assurances have been slow in coming and the project's draft Environmental Impact Report did identify potential impacts to the river.

Most notably, the report indicates the project could result in a change of timing of water diversions from the Trinity to Sacramento rivers, which could cause water to pool in Lewiston Reservoir in the fall, increasing water temperatures in the river and potentially harming salmon.

The board is slated to consider sending two letters to project officials on Dec. 10 — one asking them to revise and recirculate the environmental report to correct errors regarding potential fish impacts and another requesting a legally binding agreement essentially pledging that there will be no negative impacts to salmon in the Trinity and Lower Klamath rivers as a result of the project. If the county doesn't receive a response by Jan. 15, it would consider withdrawing its conditional support of the project, according to a draft letter.

Finally, in October, the Trump administration released a biological opinion that reverses findings made by scientists a decade ago granting Endangered Species Act protections for salmon and delta smelt, and consequently gave California rivers preference over irrigators. The opinion flatly contradicted one released in July, which concluded excess water diversions would imperil endangered fish populations. The administration pulled the document two days after its release, saying it needed "additional review."

In addition to contradicting the prior opinion, the new one would turn years of scientific studies upside down, stating that the fish would not be jeopardized by continued – or even increased — water diversions. The state of California has indicated it plans to sue the Trump administration over the opinion, saying it's a necessary step to protect Chinook salmon, steelhead and smelt.

Stokely said the dangers currently facing the Trinity River are dire.

"Just the biological opinion would pretty much be a death sentence for the Trinity River," he said. "All the way up to Lewiston Dam, there won't be any cold water and the fish will die in the hatcheries and the fish will die in the river."

Later in the conversation, Stokely sighed, contemplating the cumulative threats of the Westlands contract, Sites Reservoir and the biological opinion.

"It all ties together and it's kind of like death by a thousand cuts," he said.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. He can be reached at 442-1400, extension 321, or Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.


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