A temporary diversion

By David Anderson

WEITCHPEC -- The Westlands Water District lies a long way from the confluence of the Trinity with the Klamath, but that's where three quarters of the water that once flowed through that joining place now goes.

Ever since the completion of the Lewiston Dam in 1963, more than three quarters of the Trinity River flow has been diverted through a series of tunnels into the Whiskeytown Reservoir, and then into the pipelines and canals of the federal Central Valley Project. It is piped south to irrigate the 600,000-acre district in western Fresno and Kings counties, where it produces crops valued at more than $750 million a year from land that is semi-desert in its natural state.

But diversion on that scale may be coming to an end. The possibility has Central Valley agribusiness circling their wagons for a legal and political fight of epic dimensions.

The diversion, however, has always been legally dubious. When Congress authorizing the dam and the water diversion in 1955, it specified that only "surplus" water would be exported to the Central Valley. The legislation required that enough be left in the Trinity for "in-basin needs," including preservation of the salmon fishery.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which built the diversion project, reported in 1952 that up to 660,000 acre feet of water could be taken from the Trinity each year without damaging the fishery. That amounted to 52 percent of the river's natural flow.

When Congress authorized the project three years later, that figure was upped to 704,000 acre feet, about 56 percent of the flow. But in planning the project, the Bureau of Reclamation revised the figure upward again, to 865,000 acre feet.

But even this limit was never honored. Starting in 1964 and continuing until 1995, an average of 1.2 million acre feet a year, 88 percent of the Trinity water, was diverted into the Central Valley Project.

The Lewiston and Trinity dams cut off 109 miles of spawning stream, and also prevented the normal transport of gravel downriver. Reduced to as little as 12 percent of its natural flow, water left in the Trinity was warm and shallow, a hostile environment for juvenile salmon. And with reduced flushing action the Trinity became increasingly choked with silt.

Salmon runs, which were declining throughout Northern California, crashed in the Trinity. A 1980 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that since the diversion project was completed, the river had lost 80 percent of its chinook salmon run and 60 percent of its steelhead trout. And while acknowledging that other factors contributed to this decline, it concluded that insufficient water was the "most critical limiting factor."

Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt on June 21 released the results of a 15-year scientific study on the river. The report states that, to restore salmon runs in the Trinity, about a third of the water now diverted from the river will have to be returned. That would increase the flow in the Trinity from 340,000 to an average of 595,000 acre feet, about 47 percent of its natural flow before the diversion began.

That is slightly less than the amount the Bureau of Reclamation originally rcommended be left in the river, and slightly more than the 1954 legislation required. But it would double the amount of water that has been left in the river since 1995.

In addition to restoring about a third of the water now diverted from the river, the USFWS report states, active restoration measures must be taken. That includes removing vegetation that has grown up in the former river bed, trying to reduce ersosion into the river and efforts to restore a natural gravel regime.

"This study represents the best science available to address the fish restoration needs of the Trinity River," Babbitt said on its release. But in earlier testimony before Congressional committees, he indicated that the scientific report may not be the sole basis for the draft recommendation he will make in October.

The battle is already joined. The Central Valley Project Water Association has drafted a rider for their Congressional allies to attach to the Department of the Interior appropriations bill, thus circumventing the Water and Power Resources Subcommittee which has so far refused to interfere. The rider would prohibit any water being returned to the Trinity until final agreement is reached on the controversial Cal-Fed program for the entire Central Valley -- a process that is expected to take many years.

"There is little question on the merits of this approach, and I think we can stand on some pretty high-road arguments," association manager Jason Peltier wrote in a May 24 memorandum to the group's lobbyist. "The politics might be dicey, though."

If the political situation is "dicey," the legal position would appear to be fairly clear. Concerned about the declining salmon runs. Congress in 1980 passed the Trinity River Stream Rectification Act, followed in 1984 by the Trinity River Restoration Act, restating its 1954 position that enough water must be left in the Trinity to sustain its salmon and steelhead runs. In 1981 then-Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus signed orders for a 12-year study, after which his successor was to announce a permanent flow regime for the Trinity.

Little was done during the next 12 years to complete the study. But in 1992 Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which guaranteed at least 340,000 acre feet for the Trinity, and set a new deadline of Sept. 30, 1996 for the secretary to issue his decision on a permanent flow regime.

"That deadline was also missed of course," said Tom Stokely, director of Natural Resources for the Trinity County Planning Departments. "They really didn't start making any serious study until about three years ago. But since then, they've done a good job, and the project decision should be made by the winter of 2000."

In a letter to Babbitt on June 3, the Trinity County Board of Supervisors urged him to keep the decision process on schedule and put the power of the administration against the proposed legislative rider. Humboldt County supervisors later endorsed the Trinity stand.

In addition to violating provisions of the Central Valley Improvement Act, the supervisors' letter states, the rider would also undermine federal obligations to the Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes, who have legal rights to the Klamath-Trinity salmon.

"The Trinity River's water needs are independent of and have precedence over the use of Trinity water for the Central Valley Project and Bay-Delta purposes," the letter states.

Opposition to restoring water to the Trinity centers on the Westlands District, which receives most of the diversion, but does not come from there alone. It is part of the broader battle over California water resources. A spokesman for the California Farm Bureau complained that growers south of the San Joaquin delta are now receiving only 70 percent of their water "entitlement," even though this has been a wet year. The proposed reduction in Trinity diversions, he said, could devastate them.

The Trinity diversion is estimated to provide 15 percent of the irrigation water now going into the Central Valley Project, and 25 percent of the hydroelectric power it generates.

Water means money in Southern California, which would largely be desert without extensive imports, At present 75 percent of the state's water demand lies in the south, while 75 percent of its water supply is in the north. Over the past century, corporate agriculture and development interests have induced the state and federal governments to invest billions in projects to carry northern water south -- a system that involves 1,400 dams and thousands of miles of canals and pipelines.

Key to the system is subsidized delivery of water to agricultural users, who pay from $3 to $20 an acre foot. An urban water agency pays at least $60 for the same amount of water at a subsidized price, or up to $780 if forced to buy on the free market.

Holders of major subsidized water entitlements, mostly water districts and large corporations, are seeking legal changes that would allow them to sell their allocations at market rates. And the Westlands Water District is proposing to buy not only water rights but if necessary the land to which they are attached.

One of the largest water districts in the nation, Westlands is almost entirely dependent on the 1.15 million acre feet of water it receives annually from the Central Valley Project. Despite provisions in the Reclamation Act of 1905 that limit subsidized water deliveries to family-sized farms of 160 acres (later raised to 960 acres) or less, it consists almost entirely of large corporate farms. The acreage limitation was ignored until the 1970s, after which reorganized corporate structures have allowed companies to meet the letter of the law.

In recent decades, an additional issue has developed over Westlands irrigation. Watering the former desert leached selenium and other natural salts out of the soil, which the Bureau of Reclamation in the 1980s drained into Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge. But after massive waterfowl dieoffs on the refuge, the drains were plugged in 1986, and the toxic salts are now building up in the groundwater below the low-lying parts of the valley, poisoning crops there.

"You have an extraordinary situation here," Stokely said. "Some of the cleanest water in the state is being taken from the Trinity River, destroying the fishery there, and is piped at enormous cost to the San Joaquin Valley where it contributes to the ongoing poisoning of the soil and groundwater. And all at taxpayer expense."

©1999 Times-Standard
Sunday July 4, 1999; A1