In Northern California, the Trinity River rises in the rugged Trinity Alps northwest of Redding, meanders through tight canyons and mountain meadows along State Route 299, and joins the mighty Klamath River at the Yurok Indian Reservation near Weitchpec. To the indigenous nations who reside in the Klamath-Trinity basin, the rivers’ storied fisheries form the basis of their survival as distinct cultures.
To the US Bureau of Reclamation, however, the Klamath and Trinity rivers are distinct for an altogether different reason. The main stem of the Klamath provides irrigation water to about 200,000 acres of farmland in a highlands desert region of south-central Oregon. And the Trinity is one of the two so-called “headwaters” of the Central Valley Project, the upper Sacramento River being the other. From the bureau’s perspective, the watersheds’ main function is to provide irrigation water for California’s enormous agribusiness sector.
This arrangement has helped turn a large swath of the arid western San Joaquin Valley, located roughly five hundred miles away, into a bountiful — and profitable — farming region. The water exports have had dire consequences, however, for the Klamath and Trinity’s fish populations and the people who depend on them. With California entering its fourth year of drought, longtime observers are warning of even more dire consequences if the federal government continues to pump its customary quantity of the rivers’ water “over the hill.”
“What the Trinity and Klamath are facing is a catastrophe of epic proportions,” said Tom Stokely, a resident of Mt. Shasta and a former Trinity County natural resources planner who is now a policy analyst for the conservation group California Water Impact Network.
The problem is straightforward: not enough cold water for fish. In 2002, the lower Klamath River was the site of the largest recorded fish die-off since Europeans first stepped foot on the continent. At least 65,000 adult Chinook salmon died due to low summer flows caused by bureau water diversions and warm temperatures.
Last August, as temperatures in the lower Klamath soared into the seventies, tribal biologists began to discover fish carcasses washed up on shore near the river’s confluence with the Trinity. More than two hundred tribal members responded by rallying at the Bureau of Reclamation office in Sacramento to demand that the agency release cold water stored either at Upper Klamath Lake or at Trinity Reservoir. The bureau eventually released 70,000 acre-feet of cold water from the Trinity side, helping to blunt the grisly scenario that had begun to unfold.
But last year, despite the drought, the bureau still diverted 595,000 acre-feet of Trinity Reservoir water to Sacramento Valley and San Joaquin Valley water contractors, drawing the reservoir down to near-record lows. Meanwhile, as of last week, the reservoir was at only 47.9 percent of capacity and had roughly 11 percent less water in storage than at this time last year.
Meanwhile, powerful agricultural interests are intent on maintaining, or even expanding, water transfers. Westlands Water District and San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which both represent agribusinesses in the San Joaquin Valley, sued last summer to block releases from Trinity Reservoir water. But a federal judge dismissed almost all claims in the lawsuit, upholding the bureau’s authority to release water to protect fisheries.
However, Westlands, the largest agricultural water district in the United States, has powerful allies in Congress. Representative Jim Costa (D-Fresno) has announced that he and Congressional Republicans will soon introduce a bill that would increase “operational flexibility” for federal water projects in California, thereby further increasing water deliveries to agribusiness.
Another potential threat to the river system involves California’s renewed legislative push to build new dams. In November, voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond that included $2.7 billion for new water storage construction. Projects most likely to receive funding from the new water storage money include two new dams on the Sacramento River to store water in the so-called Sites Reservoir, which would flood the Antelope Valley about 10 miles west of the small Interstate 5 town of Maxwell. The construction of the reservoir also would create a new incentive to export Trinity water.
The north-south divide that characterizes California water politics is acutely felt in the North Coast counties. Trinity County voters registered the highest percentage of opposition to the November water bond of any county in the state: 70.4 percent. By contrast, 76.5 percent and 76 percent of residents in Fresno County and Kings County (home counties of the Westlands Water District), respectively, voted in favor.
On January 20, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors sent a pointed letter to US Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer requesting that the county be able to fully participate in deliberations regarding Congressional drought legislation. Trinity County dispatched a similar letter two weeks later. As each letter pointed out, the amount of water — more than 46 million acre-feet — exported from the Trinity in the last fifty years is staggering.
“The regulatory and programmatic ‘taking’ of [Trinity River] water in the form of diversion has significantly impacted the North Coast economy, commercial and sports fishing industry, harmed the economic, social, and cultural values for three local Native American Tribes, and shuttered local small coastal towns,” the Humboldt County letter reads. “The people of the North Coast experience the pain of those diversions every day — and have since 1964.”
Largely owing to some of these tribes’ long struggle to maintain federally acknowledged fishing rights, the Klamath-Trinity is home to the largest population of wild salmon of any river system in California, not to mention one of the healthiest populations of steelhead trout in the Lower 48, and the world’s most abundant green sturgeon population.
Members of the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes say they have no record in their cultural history of anything like the 2002 fish kill having happened before. “The salmon runs spell life and death for the Indian people over the millennia, and if something like that had happened before, there would have been stories re-told and re-told,” said Robert Franklin, a staff hydrologist for the Hoopa Valley Tribe. “It’s not a scientific way of knowing, but it’s absolutely true.”
Hoopa Valley tribal member Dania Colegrove, also a member of a grassroots organization called the Klamath Justice Coalition, explained to me the central role that the Klamath’s fisheries continue to play in her culture. “On Sunday, I went to the mouth of the Klamath River at the ocean and got eel,” she said. “The week before that, we fished for steelhead. Two days ago, my neighbor brought my mom sturgeon. The river is our grocery store, basically, and without it, we cease to exist as people.”
A federal court ruled in 1979 that the tribes are “entitled to as much water on the Reservation lands as they need to protect their hunting and fishing rights,” with a priority date of “time immemorial.” According to Colegrove, though, the Klamath basin indigenous people will have to continue protesting if their fish are to survive. “It’s going to be a fight from now on,” she said.