One for the Tribe

The Hoopa Valley Tribe and the Trinity County Planning Department are hoping that their decades-long fight to restore flows to the Trinity River is finally over. Since the 1960s when the federal government built dams on the Trinity, 90 percent of the river’s flows have been diverted to the Central Valley Project for irrigation and power generation. But in July, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a lower court order requiring that more environmental studies be completed before work to restore flows could begin. Biologists—and tribal members—have argued that increasing the flow is vital to support spring- and fall-run chinook salmon.

The 9th Circuit’s actions reverse the 2003 ruling by Judge Oliver Wanger that required yet another round of environmental impact studies, requested by downstream power generators and irrigators like Westlands Water District. Westlands, the largest irrigation district in the nation and a big downstream beneficiary of Trinity flows, may yet attempt to appeal the decision. Spokesman Tupper Hall says the agency might pursue the issue of increased salinity levels in the Delta, an ironic move considering that Westlands returns a heavy load of salt, selenium, and pesticides to the San Joaquin River from desert-grown cotton, tomatoes, and lettuce.

But the tribe’s Mike Orcutt is hopeful. “Nothing remains to hold up the [Clinton policy].” In 2000, the Clinton administration demanded that flows to the Trinity be increased—but studies have held up implementation since.

The science of the Clinton policy, favored by the Hoopa, was affirmed when the bodies of rotting salmon piled up on the rocky banks of the Klamath and Trinity rivers in 2002. In studying the cause of the massive fish kills, the National Academy of Sciences found that the reduced flows on the Trinity, the major cold water tributary of the Klamath, contributed significantly.

With the 9th Circuit decision, the tribe and the Trinity County Planning Department can move beyond studying the “environmental impacts” of increased flows—an endeavor that has taken up most of the last 15 years—and get on with the task of restoring the Trinity. Says the Department’s Tom Stokely, “There’s lots of work to be done on implementing [the Clinton policy], and now we’ll have time to focus on that.”

Restoration will include removing vegetation that has grown into dried-up areas, to allow the Trinity’s cold waters to run at higher levels past the red and white alders, tan oak, and ponderosa and sugar pine along its banks. Now river rafters will be able to enjoy the rocky turn through Burnt Ranch Gorge, and the lifeblood of the salmon will flow again.

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