The Hoopa’s fight for a river is a lesson for us all

  The Hoopa Indians of Northern California are a tenacious people. In the mid-19th century, when the U.S. Army tried to drive them out of their villages along the Trinity River, the Hoopas waited them out, camping in the nearby hills until the soldiers gave up and left.

One hundred years later the government started draining their river, damming it and diverting most of its waters through mountain tunnels to farmlands to the south. For the past 40 years, the Hoopas have struggled in the courts and in the halls of Congress to bring their river and its fishery back to life.

Up until now, this has involved a lopsided battle between the impoverished 2,500-member Indian tribe and Westlands, the largest irrigation district in the United States, one whose farmers grow crops worth roughly $1 billion of crops every year. But the balance of power is beginning to tilt in favor of the Indians — a seismic shift in California water politics that has been a couple of decades in the making.

Last July, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the permanent restoration of nearly half the Trinity's historic flows. The increased flows are part of a broader Trinity restoration program launched four years earlier by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. It had been blocked until now by a lawsuit filed by the Westlands Water District, representing the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley, who may still make a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court.

The judges' decision bodes well not only for the Hoopas and their river but for the cause of restoring ravaged watersheds throughout the West. The decision, stripped down to its essentials, says that minimum standards for the health of a river take precedence over the demands of water consumers.

The Hoopas are looking out for their own interests, to be sure, but with their growing clout they're adding a new perspective to the debate over California's water supplies. They view their river as a life-sustaining force, not a commodity to be drained. The San Joaquin Valley farmers, by contrast, began siphoning off the Trinity only after they'd depleted their groundwater and tapped out the rivers in their region. In their view, a river that flows to the sea is a waste of water. In the Indians' view, a river that flows naturally to the sea produces a healthy fishery. For all but 40 of the past 10,000 years, that has been the basic tenet of their survival.

The next big task facing the Hoopas is restoring their river, whose configuration was dramatically transformed by four decades of minimum flows. Heavy equipment will be needed to remove brush and sediment that filled up the old river's side pools. These quiet pools are crucial to the rearing of juvenile fish.

The seeds of the Hoopas' victory were planted back in the 1980s, when they began hiring some well-connected and highly respected advocates, including Seattle-based attorney Tom Schlosser, who specializes in tribal law, and Washington, D. C., lobbyist Joe Membrino, who helped shepherd through a series of laws that put the Congress on record in support of the Trinity's restoration. That, and countless studies by federal biologists, led to Secretary Babbitt's order to dramatically increase the river's flows to 47 percent of their historic levels — the minimum needed, the studies showed, to increase fish populations to sustainable levels.

The environmentalism of the Hoopas, like that of West Coast commercial fishermen who fight for clean, free-flowing streams, grows out of their livelihood and their way of life. But the Hoopas' commitment goes even deeper than that of the fishermen: The salmon the Hoopas fight for is a centerpiece of their culture, one that involves elaborate ceremonies celebrating the fish’s return to the Trinity each year.

Native Americans' deep reverence for the natural world has given them a mythical, iconic status within the environmental movement. In the real world they often live in the shadows, struggling with poverty and alcoholism. In this context, the Hoopa effort is all the more remarkable — an attempt, against great odds, to restore the basic values of their culture to a central role in reservation life — and a refusal to allow themselves to be defined, and marginalized, by the larger society.

The Hoopas, through a combination of geography and cultural tradition, have tied their hopes and their future to the natural resources of their region — they’ve always been too far off the beaten track to capitalize on the casino craze sweeping other reservations. Theirs is an important contribution to the public debate over California's increasingly scarce supplies of fresh water.

Not a moment too soon, they're bringing a healthy dose of sanity to a society that sometimes seems hell-bent on exhausting what we have left.

Tim Holt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an environmental writer who lives in the Mount Shasta region of Northern California.