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Interior proposes Trinity deal


Published March 4, 2004


The federal government wants to end the years of litigation about flows on the Klamath water issue's other stem, the Trinity River.

First, though, it would have to get the sides of the water debate to support a new proposal.

Bennett Raley, an assistant Interior secretary, was in Northern California earlier this week meeting with the parties to a court fight over flows on the Trinity.

He came with a proposal for "adaptive management," or flexible flow schedules for the river.

"We're mired in a cycle of litigation that could go on for a long, long time, and the river is suffering during that delay," Raley said Wednesday. "We would like to break that cycle."

The Hoopa Valley Tribe and Yurok Tribe are trying to get the flows set by the government in 2000 sent down the Trinity for threatened coho salmon.

Irrigation districts, city water districts and a power company are trying to keep the water diversions they depend on.

Their water flows thorough massive pipes and eventually into the Sacramento River.

In the meantime, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger makes the call on how water gets divided.

The case has been in court since 2000, but is just the latest in a string of litigation about the Trinity going back to 1984.

The Trinity flows into the Klamath River about 45 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The death of 34,000 salmon on the the lower Klamath in September 2002 added fuel to the debate about flows - both from the warm-water upper Klamath and the cool-water Trinity.

Many scientists agree that more cool water from the Trinity would help the salmon, Raley said.

"It could provide things that the Klamath (Reclamation) Project could never provide," he said.

Raley, assistant secretary for water and science, said the premise of his proposal is that nature doesn't always follow models, so flows need to be flexible.

"Playing God with natural ecosystems is a lot harder than it looks," Raley said.

Raley's proposal got a near rejection from the Hoopa Valley Tribe, who said the flows could sometimes be too low, and lukewarm response from Westlands Water District, one of the major water user groups in the litigation, who said the flows could sometimes be too high.

The proposal isn't a elaborate report or a complex computer model. Rather it is a handful of pages, a flow table and a concept that Raley said was created by water managers who work with the Trinity system.

It calls for a group of biologists to discuss spring, summer and fall flows between November and January and would allow changes in the flow schedule no matter how the year has been described. Currently, the flow schedules are prescribed month to month, depending on whether the year has been tagged as normal, dry or critically dry.

Kirk Rodgers, manager of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's mid-Pacific region, said a big question people have about the proposal is who the biologists who make the decision will be. He said that hasn't been determined.

"Certainly, they would be professionals who know the river and who know the fish and have credentials; members of the Tribe, agencies, perhaps others from academia - we know they need to be objective and credible."

The proposal also calls for 20,000 acre-feet of water to be held in Trinity Reservoir for "emergency" use starting in the spring and another 50,000 acre-feet to be held for potential use later in the year to help salmon.

The water would be bought or traded for from water users and cost about $5 million, Raley said. The cost could be spread out over several years, depending on whether the reserves are used.

Although the dispute about flows from the upper Klamath Basin could benefit from a proposal like the one for the Trinity, Rodgers said, a solution would have be to tailored to fit the situation.

"It would need to be customized and thought through to meet the circumstances that the Klamath represents," Rodgers said.

The Hoopa Valley Tribe didn't like the government's Trinity proposal.

Mike Orcutt, Tribe fisheries director, said the tribe wants to get to where the coho gets the flows they need and is looking at many proposals of how to do so.

"This one doesn't get us there," he said.

He said the government's proposal and its sliding scales don't provide enough water for it to meet the government's tribal trust responsibilities. The tribe wants to stick to the flows the government set for the Trinity in 2000.

Orcutt said he doesn't like the idea of the government depending on purchased water for emergency flows.

"It places the fishery at risk if we are to depend on that system," he said.

Officials from the Westlands Water District are intrigued by the proposal, but want more time to go over it, said Tupper Hull, district spokesman.

"We think there is much to talk about in the department's proposal," he said.

He said the proposal shows a willingness by the Interior Department to be flexible with the Trinity flows. But he is leery about the sliding scale that would could push flows up on the Trinity and leave less water for irrigators and other water users.

"The lawsuit needs to be settled," he said. "The fishery in the Trinity needs to be restored...If this stays in the courts it is going to be a very long time before the river gets the attention it needs."





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