Judge rejects a Trump-era water contract in a win for tribes in California

A bid to benefit agribusiness has stalled again, leaving the Hoopa Valley Tribe hopeful that the next contract follows the law.

 

On Oct. 27, in a victory for tribes in Northern California, Fresno County Superior Court Judge D. Tyler Tharpe rejected a Trump-era water contract between the federal Bureau of Reclamation and Westlands Water District, the public entity in charge of distributing water to farms in California’s San Joaquin Valley.  

David Bernhardt, a former Westland Water District lobbyist who was serving as secretary of the Interior at the time, oversaw the drafting of the agreement, which critics say clearly favored agricultural interests.  

At one point, some 90% of the Trinity River’s water was diverted to Central Valley agriculture.
Courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation

The contract would have given Westlands permanent access to 1.15 million acre-feet of water from the Trinity River. However, according to a coalition of fishing and conservation groups and tribal nations, led by the Hoopa Valley Tribe in the Klamath Basin, it would have done so without ensuring that Westlands paid an estimated sixth of the $400 million it owed the Bureau of Reclamation for ecosystem restoration. 

“The guys that are benefiting from the water are supposed to be, by law, paying money for restoration,” says Michael Orcutt, the director of the Fisheries Department for the Hoopa Valley Tribe. “They were going to be let off the hook.” 

The judge’s decision, which also cited the lack of public notice regarding the contract and its incomplete financial details, sends the water district back to the drawing board. Meanwhile, the tribes are hopeful that a new contract under the Biden administration will successfully secure the restoration funds.

For over half a century, water has been taken from the Trinity River in Northern California and sent nearly 300 miles away to irrigate industrial farms in the San Joaquin Valley. At one point, 90% of the river was diverted south, contributing to dramatic declines in chinook and coho salmon. Since then, steps have been taken to restore salmon populations and mitigate the impacts that the dams and diversions have had on wildlife and river ecosystems. The Central Valley Improvement Act of 1992, for example, mandated that restoration costs be covered by Central Valley water contractors, with the money being administered by the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Trinity River Division of the Central Valley Project is composed of: the Trinity Dam, a large storage reservoir; Lewiston Dam, which controls the water released into Trinity River; and Clear Creek Tunnel, which transports water from Lewiston Dam into Whiskeytown Lake in the Sacramento River Basin.
Courtesy of the Trinity River Restoration Project

The Hoopa Valley Tribe argued that the federal government had abdicated its trust responsibility by failing to hold the district accountable for restoration payments. “We’re a federally recognized tribe with reserved fishing rights,” Orcutt said. “Those rights are meaningless if the fishery isn’t what we’ve historically experienced. They’ll never be able to fully acknowledge and reciprocate these impacts to the Hoopa people, but we have this fish restoration stuff.”

People don’t realize how important the Trinity River is to the survival of Klamath salmon, said Regina Chichizola, the co-director of Save California Salmon. “If there’s going to be a fish kill in the Klamath, releases of cold water from the Trinity stop it. It’s why we haven’t had a fish kill since 2002.”

But unless the Hoopa Valley Tribe fights for it, Chichizola said, good management is hard to come by. The tribe has been forced to deal with the problem since 1955, when the dams went in. “Unfortunately, we’re just constantly having to deal with Westlands fighting for more water,” she said. “They’ve always been the one pushing for more diversions out of the Trinity River.” 

Westlands maintains that it received no special treatment from the federal government and that it paid for restoration costs, according to The Associated Press. For now, however, the district faces an invalidated contract. A hearing has been scheduled on Dec. 2, and Westlands says that if its case is dismissed, it will appeal.

Constructed in the 1950s, the Trinity Dam is part of the infrastructure that sends water from the Trinity River to farms in California’s Central Valley.
Courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation

“In a way, we kind of dodged a bullet,” said Orcutt. If the permanent contract had been authorized, the federal government would have forfeited the right to collect restoration payments. “Their obligations should be to make that contract as solid as we can get in the future, including the obligation for restoration costs in the Central Valley Improvement Act,” he said.

Now that the Interior Department is headed by Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo), Orcutt is optimistic that she’ll push for a contract that upholds the law. “Ideally, this could be a cornerstone of Secretary Deb Haaland’s policy. It’s a federal statute to meet the trust responsibility to the Hoopa Valley Tribe. What we’re saying is, ‘Pay attention to what that law says, interpret it.’ ”

Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at High Country News. We welcome reader letters. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....