A Thursday ruling by a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno will allow extra water to be released from the Trinity Reservoir through late September to prevent a salmon kill in the lower Klamath River, which is predicted to have the second-largest return of fall chinook salmon on modern record.
The water release, ordered by the federal government, had been blocked by legal action taken by farmers in the Central Valley that receive Trinity River water. Central Valley irrigators had filed suit against the Bureau of Reclamation, saying the agency did not have the authority to use more water for fish in an already depleted reservoir.
“It’s an 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. The PCFFA, along with the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes, argued on behalf of the feds’ decision 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 of the salmon and our people. This is a victory for every salmon-lover the world over.”
The fishing rights of the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes weighed heavily on the court’s decision, as the ruling says that a court should be reluctant to overturn tribal rights without a mandate from Congress.
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.
“The flows, scientifically justified by written declarations and oral testimony from both of the Yurok Tribal expert witnesses, are nearly identical to those initially proposed by the federal government earlier this month,” said Yurok Fisheries Manager Dave Hillemeier in a statement.
The tug-of-war for water between farms and fish started when two water districts that serve Central Valley farmers filed suit against the Bureau of Reclamation over its proposal to release a large pulse flow 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 possible massive salmon kill due to this year’s drought conditions and sizable predicted salmon return. But on the day before 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 was tasked with demonstrating to Judge O’Neill why the restraining order should be lifted before the lawsuit played out naturally.
O’Neill said in Thursday’s ruling that in the week since, a change in environmental conditions and the federal position has meant that two-thirds less water than expected was required, making the decision easier and less harmful to farmers.
“All parties have prevailed in a significant, responsible way,”O’Neill said in the ruling. “All is being done that can reasonably occur to prevent a major fish kill.”
Advocates for the two sides, for the most part, agreed.
“The Trinity River is our vessel of life, and the salmon are our lifeblood,” said Danielle Vigil-Masten, chairwoman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. “We applaud the decision to release this water to avert a fish disaster.”
The San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, one of the groups that sued, declared victory due to the reduced water amount in the judge’s order.
“Clearly the scientific justification they provided last week just couldn’t hold up,” the group said in a statement.
Both sides recognized the need for a more comprehensive, long-term management program for water in the Klamath-Trinity system to avoid waging a water war on a year-by-year basis.
“Instead of doing this ad hoc, they need to make this a standard mitigation program,” Spain said.
“I’m glad that Judge O’Neill decided that salmon are the priority. These extra flows will benefit our rivers, our fish, our people and our economy on the North Coast,” said Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, D-North Coast, in a statement. “It’s critical that we protect these natural resources. It’s unfortunate that these releases were delayed.”
Beginning at 8 a.m. Sunday, the Bureau of Reclamation will start ramping up water releases from 450 cubic feet per second to 2,650 cfs in support of the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s bi-annual Boat Dance Ceremony — an agreement separate from the lawsuit.
After the close of the ceremony, on Tuesday at midnight, the flows will begin to be gradually reduced to a rate of approximately 850 cfs, according to the bureau. That flow will stay in place at least through Sept. 19, covering the historical bulk of the fall salmon run.
Six Rivers National Forest officials warned boaters to be cautious during the higher flows on the Trinity.
The water releases were ordered to prevent a repeat of 2002, when at least 34,000 salmon died in the lower Klamath River. Spain said the disaster 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 commercial salmon fishermen in Oregon and California.
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 Project. Before recent restoration projects were implemented, up to 90 percent of water in the Trinity basin was diverted to the Central Valley.
Next year, unless a very wet winter restores nearly empty reservoirs, farmers predict they might get little or no water — and the lack of Trinity River water would further reduce their deliveries.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.