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Hoopa Valley Tribe fails to block winter flow project on Trinity River

The Northern California tribe has been fighting the Bureau of Reclamation over a change in the timing of water releases to restore the river.

(CN) — A federal judge for the second time in two months rejected a bid by the Hoopa Valley Tribe to stop the Bureau of Reclamation from releasing more water during the winter months in the Trinity River that runs through the tribe's territory in Northern California.

U.S. District Judge Jennifer Thurston on Friday denied the tribe's request for a preliminary injunction to halt the bureau's winter flow variability project on the Trinity that began on Feb. 15. The judge wasn't persuaded that the alleged harm to the tribe's fisheries outweighed the environmental benefits the government claimed for adjusting the timing of the water that is released annually to restore the river.

"Plaintiff’s moving papers provide only conclusory critiques of the scientific underpinnings of the WFV Project, which appear to represent the most up-to-date science on these issues," Thurston said. "Overall, the Court finds that the WFV Project identifies real problems with the pre-existing flow regime and sets forth a scientifically supported approach to addressing those problems."

The ruling addresses one aspect of the lawsuit the tribe filed in 2020 against the Trump administration over water that's diverted from the river to irrigate farmland in California's Central Valley. The tribe renewed the litigation last year after settlement efforts with the Biden administration failed.

The tribe opposes the bureau releasing more water down the river in the winter months, as part of its 2000 plan to restore fish populations downstream, because that could mean there might be less water available during the summer under the annual amounts set aside for the restoration program.

Thurston last month rejected the tribe's bid for a preliminary injunction based on the allegation that the government couldn't change the schedule for water releases without the tribe's consent under a 2000 record of decision. In Friday's ruling she denied the tribe's request under the alternative legal claim that the government hadn't conducted an environmental impact study to evaluate the winter flow project.

The winter flow will continue through April 15, the government said in opposition to the tribe's request to block the project, and will provide ecologically and biologically critical water to the river’s plant and animal species during the winter months.

"This vitally important river management initiative attempts to replicate the natural flow patterns of the pre-dam river and will, among other things, ensure that the river’s temperatures facilitate fish growth and survival," according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

An attorney for the tribe didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

The salmon fisheries in the tribe's territory are an important element of the community, according to the ruling, and every other summer and fall, the Hoopa Tribe hosts a significant ceremonial event on its Reservation. One such biennial event will occur this year, and salmon are an irreplaceable element of these ceremonies, with members of the tribe traditionally sharing salmon they harvest from the Trinity River with those who attend the events.

Members of the tribe also have relied on a variety of salmonid runs for subsistence fishing, with fall run Chinook predominating. In recent years, fall run Chinook abundance has been declining, shifting reliance onto the spring run, and this year, permissible harvest of fall run will be significantly restricted to one of the lowest on record, according to the ruling.

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