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Water Snakes 

Sometime in the next few weeks, the federal Department of the Interior is scheduled to issue an opinion on the question of whether Humboldt County can finally claim the annual 50,000 acre-feet of Trinity River water that it was promised in 1955, when Congress passed the legislation that built Lewiston Dam near Weaverville and began the diversion of our wild river to the Central Valley. If and when that opinion is released -- it has been delayed before -- its contents will serve as the best local measure of the Obama administration's steel.

It would take a gargantuan feat of twisted reasoning to argue that the water is anything less than the county's due. Back in the ’50s, Humboldt County was outraged by the proposed addition of Trinity water to the Central Valley Project. The Board of Supervisors at the time pressed for and received a 50,000 acre-foot water allocation as a way to buy local support. Congress signed off on the deal. Humboldt County's allocation was written into the Trinity River Division Act and reaffirmed by contract four years later.

Yet we have never received a drop of that water, and this despite recent protests by county government and, especially, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, whose land is centered on the Trinity and whose people have depended on it since time immemorial. This despite the shocking decline of North Coast salmon fisheries, especially on the Klamath River, of which the Trinity is the largest tributary.

Why have we never received our water? Largely because the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Lewiston Dam, has simply refused to give it to us. They are supported in their refusal by the frighteningly powerful Central Valley farming lobby. Together they insist that we are already getting our 50,000 acre-feet a year -- it is included, they say, in the water that they graciously allow into the Trinity River from spill gates at the end of their reservoir.

Historical research undertaken by the Hoopa Tribe plainly shows this to be nonsense. Humboldt County's allocation was always intended to be an allocation above and beyond the bare-minimal habitat requirements that have been imposed on the river for most of the post-dam era, and was to be used for whatever useful purpose we desire. But it remains to be seen whether Team Obama will stand behind the statutory record, the federal government's unambiguous contract obligations and a river ecosystem on its last legs. It could, instead, follow the treaded path and give Central Valley agribusiness whatever it desires.

This has always been sleazy, but it would be especially egregious in this day and age. The Westlands Water District, the largest user of Trinity River water and a massive force in California politics, currently pays around $36 per acre-foot for its Central Valley Project deliveries -- a dollar for 9,000 gallons. There might conceivably be some sort of rationale for that massive government subsidy if the water in question were used for its intended purpose -- agriculture. Instead, though, Westlands, like many Central Valley Project water users, is developing a sideline in water brokerage. Right now it's considering shipping 100,000 acre-feet of its current humongous water surplus to the Metropolitan Water District, which serves municipal users in the Los Angeles area. Last year, another Central Valley Project customer sold 14,000 acre-feet of irrigation water to San Bernardino County for $5,500 per acre-foot -- something like 100 times the price it paid -- and netted a profit upwards of $70 million.

Of course, such brazen raids on the public treasury require solid political support. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a public booster of Westlands and other Central Valley users -- precisely the people who will squeal loudest if the administration attempts to honor the United States' long-neglected contract with Humboldt County, thereby taking those valuable gallons off their nascent commodities market. Fox News blowhard Sean Hannity has been known to broadcast live from Westlands territory, screaming about the federal government killing Central Valley agriculture (irony is dead) through enforcement of environmental laws.

The Obama administration seems to cave to such pressure on alternate days, saving up barely enough political capital to attempt something worthwhile tomorrow. Maybe we'll get lucky. Or maybe the administration will see this case for the clear-cut matter of law and justice that it is.


Hey, it's that time of year again! The NCJ's annual "Best of Humboldt" issue -- the funnest issue of the year -- drops on Sept. 2. That means we need your votes, stat!

We want to crowdsource our picks for Humboldt County's best bar, restaurant, coffeehouse, band and two-thirds of a dozen other things. To save everyone a bunch of headache, voting is online-only this year, so direct your browser to and chime in. Polling ends Aug. 27. For all that is holy please make your voice heard!

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Hank Sims

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