Fate of Northern California at Stake in Trinity River War

Danielle Vigil-Masten
September 16, 2013

The Hoopa Valley Tribe applauds a recent decision by a federal judge to allow the federal Bureau of Reclamation to open the Lewiston dam and release Trinity River water needed to avoid a replay of the 2002 fish kill in the Klamath River.

The lifting of the restraining order holding back these flows, which was requested as part of a lawsuit by the Westlands Water District and San Lois & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, is good news for this year’s record run of salmon.

The fact that a last minute lawsuit could have caused a catastrophic fish kill in the Klamath River demonstrates the need for long-term solutions to water issues in the Klamath, and it’s largest tributary, the Trinity River.

It is regrettable that this latest lawsuit has reignited the war for the Trinity River, one of the fiercest in the history of California water. At stake are Northern Californian’s way of life, including thousands of years of tribal existence, and commercial and sport fishing economies.

In this suit, irrigators located hundreds of miles from the Trinity River revived arguments that water for salmon, environmental conservation and cultural preservation should more profitably be used to grow crops. These crops are grown with subsidized water on marginal lands.

This latest attempt to use environmental laws to block water for environmental protection is especially hypocritical and deplorable if we look at the history of the Trinity water struggle.

The last battle for the Trinity was twelve years ago. Then, a federal appeals court rejected similar efforts by these same water users that would have blocked salmon restoration in the Trinity River.

The laws, permits and contracts that established the nearly 60-year old priorities for Trinity water are clear. Westlands and the San Luis & Delta-Medota Water Authority have always known that federal law gives Trinity needs priority over their use of Trinity River water, yet they continue to use obstructionist tactics to hold up water releases when the fish need it most.

Moreover, the broad scope of the crisis affecting our fishery involves irrigation and hydropower generation in Oregon and the controversial Bay Delta Conservation planning process in California.

Central Valley farmers are not the only party to blame for this crisis. If Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon was not overdrawn last year, and more water had been released from Iron Gate Dam, the Klamath River would not be in as dire a situation. If Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp would stick to its promise to remove the Klamath Dams instead of stalling dam removal through the manipulation of California’s water quality laws, water would be cleaner and cooler in the Klamath.

We cannot let wasteful corporate farming continue to diminish and pollute our rivers and groundwater to the point they cannot sustain fisheries or communities. The 2002 Klamath River fish kill was devastating not only the Tribes of the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, but also to coastal fishing communities.

It was also a wake up call for the stakeholders of the Klamath watershed, including California and Oregon. However eleven years, and millions of dollars in hearings and meetings, later very few solutions to the problem have been implemented.

There is a path forward. We have prepared long-term, comprehensive and science based solutions to the Klamath and Trinity crisis. We invite California and Oregon water managers to discuss them with us.

Danielle Vigil-Masten is the chairwoman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe.