Judge halts Klamath River flows, for now; order on salmon releases in effect through Friday

Judge halts Klamath River flows, for now; order on salmon releases in effect through Friday

by Kimberly Wear
The Times-Standard

August 14, 2013

Salmon fishing communities from Tillamook, OR to Monterey, CA depend upon Klamath River fall chinook for their livelihoods. Photo by Times-Standard.

A U.S. District Court judge in Fresno halted water releases meant to prevent a fish kill on the lower Klamath River on Tuesday, granting a temporary restraining order sought by farmers in the San Joaquin Valley who filed a lawsuit against the federal government last week.

Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill noted that the runs were meant to stave off a potential “serious fish die off,” but said holding off for a few days wouldn’t change the outcome of the releases.

”Having considered all of the materials filed thus far, the Court concludes that a brief temporary restraining order to maintain the status quo is warranted,” O’Neill wrote in the order that runs through Friday. “This would afford an opportunity for the Court to consider a reply and perform a more measured analysis of the issues.”

The suit filed by the Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation alleges the releases from the Trinity Reservoir — which were slated to begin Tuesday — would be unlawful and would further decrease the little water available to farmers for irrigation.

O’Neill states the federal environmental assessment issued for the flows “gives little attention to the potential environmental impacts of reduced water supplies to water users in the Sacramento San Joaquin Basin,” but notes a fish kill could have “severe impacts on both commercial and tribal fishing interests.”

Hoopa Valley Tribe officials have previously stated that the releases — which federal officials said are needed to prevent a repeat of the 2002 fish kill that left tens of thousands of salmon dead before they could spawn — are already too little, too late.

”Today, I have received a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) issued by Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill that has an adverse effect on today’s scheduled release of Trinity River water to advert a Klamath fish kill. This TRO contradicts almost 60 years of laws pertaining to the diversion of the Trinity River, which put the Hoopa Valley Tribal water rights and the Trinity fishery over the needs of Central Valley irrigators,” stated Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairwoman Danielle Vigil-Masten in a release Tuesday night.

”It is unfathomable that the Central Valley water users would file this suit after they have made millions of dollars on the backs of the Trinity River salmon and communities,” Vigil-Masten wrote.

The Trinity River is the main tributary of the Klamath. A large portion of Trinity water is usually sent south into the Sacramento River and is piped to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley through the Central Valley Project.

The Hoopa Valley Tribe and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations have filed paperwork in support of the releases.

”The fishing community — commercial, recreational and Tribal — has sacrificed a great deal to ensure there are ample returning spawning salmon, including total closures of our seasons and loss of our livelihoods in recent years” said Eureka commercial fisherman Dave Bitts, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

”It has been painful, but we have done this as an investment in our future,” he said in a release. “All of this sacrifice will be for nothing if San Joaquin Valley agribusiness gets its way and steals the salmon’s water.”

Farmers in the Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest federal irrigation district, and others on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley say they desperately need the Trinity water to help deal with severe water shortages next year. The farmers have received just 20 percent of their water deliveries this year, leading them to fallow thousands of acres of land and rely on groundwater.

And next year, unless a very wet winter restores nearly empty reservoirs, the 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.