Indian tribes, recreational fishermen and the commercial salmon industry won a major legal victory Thursday evening.
A federal judge in Fresno ruled that Central Valley irrigators could not block the federal government’s decision to release water from a Trinity River reservoir to safeguard what is predicted to be the second-largest run of salmon to the Klamath-Trinity River system on modern record.
“It is important victory for the salmon and the fishing industry and ultimately the judge found that the impact on Central Valley irrigation was very small and the risk of a fish kill on the Klamath was very large,” said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the largest trade organization of commercial fishermen on the West Coast.
At least 34,000 salmon died in a Klamath fish kill in 2002, which Spain argues severely limited stocks of ocean salmon from 2005 to 2007, causing up to $200 million in losses to coastal communities. A federal disaster was declared in 2006 and $60.4 million was allocated to comercial salmon fishermen in Oregon and California.
The tug-of-war for water between farms and fish started when two water districts that provide for Central Valley farmers filed suit against the Bureau of Reclamation over its proposal to release a large pulse flow of water stored to protect the predicted return of 272,000 fall chinook salmon.
The Bureau of Reclamation had ordered the water release to begin Aug. 13 to prevent a massive possible salmon mortality due to this year’s drought conditions and sizable predicted salmon return. But on the day of the scheduled flow release, Judge Lawrence O’Neill granted a restraining order blocking the water.
In court hearings this week, the Bureau of Reclamation as defendant were tasked with demonstrating to Judge O’Neill why the restraining order should be lifted before the lawsuit plays out naturally. Reclamation was joined in its defense by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Yurok Tribe, and the Hoopa Valley Tribe as defendant intervenors.
“The Yurok Tribe will always take whatever measures are necessary to protect the Klamath River, which is our lifeline,” said Yurok Chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. “We intervened in this case on behalf the salmon and our people.”
Fisheries biologists with the Yurok Tribe presented a technical report showing the river flows necessary to prevent a fish kill during a high return year.
“Judge O'Niell seemed to be pressing tribal and federal scientists for answers to what salmon need to survive in the Klamath River this year,” said Hoopa Valley Tribal biologist Mike Orcutt. “We did our best and hoped and prayed for this decision. The fate of the fish was in the judge’s hands and he made the right decision.”
Yurok commercial fishermen made almost $3 million last year alone selling Klamath River salmon, the largest fishery allocated to an Indian Tribe in California.
The Trinity River, the largest tributary to the Klamath, is the only water source outside of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Basin that is used to supplement water to farmers in the Central Valley. Before recent restoration projects were implemented, up to 90 percent of water in the Trinity basin was diverted to the Central Valley.