Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Free to Flow
With lawsuits done and projects begun, the Trinity River will rise again
By Alex Breitler,
TRINITY RIVER -- Before the lawsuits, attorneys and appeals, before the settlement talks and the sound bites, water managers here had a simple enough goal.
It's imprinted on a plaque at Trinity Dam: "Built for and by the people of the United States to conserve and wisely use the waters of these mountains."
Problem is, no one's been able to agree on what that wise use should be.
This spring, the debate will cease -- at least, in the courtroom. In the coming months, the once-mighty Trinity River may rise to its highest planned levels since the dam was built more than 40 years ago, as officials finally implement a Clinton-era plan to resurrect the river.
It won't be as simple as cranking a faucet. Adding water is just the first step to bringing back the Trinity, long diminished by diversions for agriculture and power production.
Crews are rebuilding or strengthening four bridges to withstand faster, higher currents. And the government is negotiating the purchase of one Douglas City home that would be inundated in the flood.
Ultimately, 47 projects are planned to improve the streambed by yanking out trees, brush and gravel buildups that turned this once winding, broad channel into a thin band.
The goal is to someday let the Trinity take care of itself.
"It's going to be quite a few years," said Tom Stokely, a Trinity County planner and river advocate.
Not that Stokely is complaining. Supporters of river restoration are relieved that Westlands Water District and the Northern California Power Agency recently decided not to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Historically, as much as 90 percent of the river has been diverted for crops in the San Joaquin Valley, more than 200 miles south, as well as for power generation. Irrigators successfully sued in 2000 to stop the Clinton plan, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last summer sided with American Indians who called for more water down the Trinity.
The plan calls for diverting 52 percent of the river's flow.
That's good news for the Hoopa Valley Tribe, which depends on the Trinity's salmon runs. Those runs have declined up to 80 percent after decades of mining, logging and, most recently, diversions.
The problem wasn't just a lack of water, experts say. It was how the water was managed.
Steady but small releases from Trinity Lake allowed brush and trees to grow closer to the river's banks downstream. In the past, natural floods had kept those banks clear.
The encroaching vegetation trapped sand and sediment, causing berms to grow like levees up to 12 feet high. This kept the river narrow and gave fish less room to spawn.
In essence, the river was becoming a canal.
Future projects include using heavy machinery to rip out those berms and open up the Trinity.
"The common phrase is that we take the handcuffs off the river," said Doug Schleusner of the federal Trinity River Restoration Program. "Then we let the river do the work."
Officials also will inject gravel into the Trinity for salmon, which spawn in the rocky deposits at the bottom of the channel. There's gravel in the upper river, but Trinity Dam blocks it from being swept downstream.
"What we're trying to do is create opportunities for brooding habitat for the young fish," Schleusner said. "We need to see a really sizable increase in habitat before we can expect to see a sizable increase in fish."
Things will never be the way they once were on the Trinity. The dam has, after all, blocked off 100 miles of fish habitat upstream.
Instead, the plan is to mold a river system that is a smaller version of its former self.
The Hoopa tribe has waited long for this day. From where their valley reservation 75 miles west of Trinity Dam now lies, tribal members have harvested fish for thousands of years for subsistence and ceremony.
"We are extremely pleased that Westlands did not choose further litigation," said Mike Orcutt, the tribe's fisheries director. "Resources and people's time can be devoted to some other things."
But the tribe remains leery.
Work is behind schedule, due in no small part to the litigation. The bridges were supposed to have been replaced by 2003, about the same time the bank improvement projects were to begin.
And, the tribe says, Schleusner's $10.8 million program is underfunded, with cuts of $1 million or more likely in the coming weeks. Those reductions could lead to further delays, Orcutt said.
Schleusner acknowledged that budget cuts might slow things down.
"We still have a really healthy program here, whether its $9 million or $10 million," said Schleusner, who oversees 13 staffers in a Weaverville office. He says the program is one of a "relatively small number" of similar efforts in the country.
Whatever work is ultimately completed on the Trinity, the river's health still depends in part on another beleaguered waterway -- the Klamath River.
The Trinity pours into the Klamath upstream from the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of fish died on the Klamath below the Trinity merger in 2002 partly because of low flows, and many of those fish were likely heading to the Trinity to spawn.
The Klamath has seen water wars of its own with farmers in the upper Klamath Basin clashing with conservationists, American Indians and commercial fishermen over a limited amount of water.
"These are challenges," Orcutt said. "We have a large problem with the Klamath system as a whole."
In central California, reduced Trinity diversions will cost Westlands about 5 percent of its water supply and eliminate hundreds of farm jobs. The state's energy supply will drop by one-tenth of 1 percent.
"While Westlands continues to believe the 9th Circuit Court erred in its decision, judicial errors are not one of the reasons the Supreme Court typically hears a case," said Westlands spokesman Tupper Hull.
That means victory for the Hoopa tribe and groups such as Friends of the Trinity River, which has long fought for the higher flows.
The group's frustration on this point is evident on its Web site, where viewers are asked to click on a link "to receive updated news affecting Trinity River restoration, or lack of it." fotr.org.
Reporter Alex Breitler can be reached at 225-8344 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
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