North Coast Journal banner


Turning the tap


The Hoopa Valley and the Yurok tribes won a major victory in court last week to increase the flow of water from a dam into the Trinity River. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed a January ruling by a Fresno judge in favor of Central Valley water users and ordered a restoration plan to go forward.

It's about time.

"Twenty years have passed since Congress passed the first major act calling for restoration of the Trinity River and rehabilitation of its fish populations," Judge Alfred Goodwin wrote in the court's opinion. "And almost another decade has elapsed since Congress set a minimal flow level for the river to force rehabilitative action."

This is a story I've been covering since I started reporting in 1981. Doug Bosco was the North Coast representative in Congress, and he was having some success in getting money for restoration projects. Of course, we now know much of that money was wasted. Vegetation grows back without the river flushing itself clean. Gravel dumped for spawning habitat doesn't do any good without adequate water flows.

Many think the story of the Trinity's decimated fish population began in 1955 when legislation was passed to create the Central Valley Project, or in 1963 when the dams on the Trinity were completed. But the real story, one of broken promises, began in the late 1800s. That was when the Yurok Tribe, which historically fished the Klamath River, gave up hundreds of acres of aboriginal land in return for fishing rights on the Trinity.

Although officials with the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees dams, claimed in the 1950s that the "fishing would be improved" by the Central Valley project and "no more than 56 percent" of the water would be diverted, the government reneged and the fishery rather quickly declined to 90 percent of pre-dam levels. (See the Aug. 15, 2002 Journal cover story "River War: The Fight Over the Trinity" online at

By the late 1970s Trinity County and particularly the Hoopa Tribe, which has taken a proactive lead in gathering its own independent scientific data, began fighting back in court. In 1981 a 12-year study was ordered by the Carter Administration, followed in 1984 by legislation mandating "restoration of fish and wildlife population to levels which existed preceding construction of the Trinity Diversion." Finally, in 1991, flows began to be increased in the Trinity.

I had a conversation a few years back with Mike Thompson, our current representative in Congress, about river diversion. He has always been in a tough spot, especially regarding the Eel River, 85 percent of which is diverted to the majority of his water-thirsty, agricultural-dependent constituents south of Humboldt. He told me, "You can't just turn off the spigot" on existing water users elsewhere.

No, but you can start turning the tap because it's the right thing, the necessary thing, to do to speed up the repair of the rivers and to restore the fisheries.

Alarm bells began sounding in the 1970s -- more than three decades ago -- and we're just getting around to hearing them?



North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.