For North Coast’s rivers, relying on luck is not a plan

For North Coast’s rivers, relying on luck is not a plan
by Jared Huffman
San Francisco Chronicle Opinion

Sept. 11, 2013

In “Dirty Harry,” Clint Eastwood memorably asked, do you “feel lucky?” It made for great theater, but it’s no way to manage North Coast salmon. Unfortunately, that’s been the policy of the U.S. Department of Interior toward the near-record run of Chinook salmon that is migrating up the Trinity and Klamath rivers. Instead of a comprehensive strategy to fulfill its duty to protect this iconic fishery, the department is rolling the dice. So far, the salmon have been lucky.

A decade ago, they were not so lucky. In 2002, the same conditions we are experiencing this year — large salmon returns, a dry year, and over-allocated Klamath River water unable to satisfy all competing needs — produced a massive fish kill. Insufficient river flows brought death to thousands of salmon and economic disaster for tribes, fishermen, and communities up and down the West Coast.

The water allocation conflicts in the Klamath River Basin are exacerbated by the constant legal battles waged by corporate farms in the Central Valley against the interests of those who rely on salmon on the North Coast of California. This summer, the ever-litigious Westlands Water District in Fresno sued to stop the federal government from releasing water from Trinity Lake into the Trinity River to improve conditions for salmon downstream in the Lower Klamath. Despite the need to raise water levels and cool the river to help avoid a fish kill, Westlands wanted the water, so it sued and won a temporary order blocking the Trinity releases.

Luckily, the federal court ultimately ruled against Westlands and allowed the water to be released — just in time to reach thousands of salmon entering the Klamath estuary. But this shouldn’t have happened — it shouldn’t be up to a judge to decide every year whether the federal government can use Trinity River water to prevent a fish kill. For the sake of salmon and the sake of plain good governance, we need a permanent solution.

Unfortunately, the Interior Department has been dithering for years. Humboldt County, 200 miles north of San Francisco, is owed 50,000 acre-feet of Trinity River water a year dating back to a 1955 federal law. For years, Humboldt County, the Hoopa Valley and the Yurok tribes, have been asking the department to allow this water right to be used to protect and enhance the downstream salmon fishery. Earlier this summer — well before the pending crisis and the Westlands lawsuit — Democratic Reps. Mike Thompson, George Miller and I asked the Secretary of the Interior to respond to the long-standing requests for use of this water.

The response from the federal water managers? Crickets. Their silence follows an all-too-common federal tactic of waiting until an emergency, letting the Central Valley water exporters drive the agenda, and hoping for the best: the “do you feel lucky” plan. It’s past time for the department to decide, once and for all, whether Humboldt County’s water allocation will be honored so we can avoid these regular crises on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.

The Interior Department’s mismanagement of this year’s crisis and failure to take a stand on Humboldt County’s water rights should be a red flag to Northern Californians regarding another “do you feel lucky” policy in the making: the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and its proposal to build huge tunnels to increase diversions of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta estuary without protections for North Coast water. This is a movie we’ve seen many times before: Westlands and other delta exporters will sue for every drop of Northern California water they can get, with no regard for salmon or North Coast rivers.

The federal agencies, along with Gov. Jerry Brown, have told us to trust that the BDCP will avoid these problems. I hope they’re right. But the state and federal agencies have been negotiating with Westlands and the other water exporters for seven years, and still haven’t been able to agree that more water — not less — must flow through the bay-delta to preserve healthy salmon runs.

With tens of thousands of wild salmon and the economic vitality of North Coast communities in the balance, the feds have consistently ducked the tough calls. Is it any wonder that Northern Californians are skeptical about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan?

Jared Huffman represents the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity and Del Norte counties, in the U.S. House of Representatives.