Judge Blocks Water Gusher in California

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge Tuesday blocked the planned release of hundreds of millions of gallons of water from the Trinity Reservoir, after water districts sued Uncle Sam , claiming it was putting fish before people.
     On Tuesday, the day the gusher was scheduled to begin, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill temporarily restrained the Bureau of Reclamation from releasing extra water from the Lewiston Dam to the Trinity River this week.
     “Having considered all of the materials filed thus far, the Court concludes that a brief temporary restraining order to maintain the status quo is warranted. This would afford an opportunity for the Court to consider a reply and perform a more measured analysis of the issues,” O’Neill wrote.
     Courthouse News reported on Monday: “California water districts sued Uncle Sam for demanding that they release 355 million gallons of water from the Trinity Reservoir to prevent a possible salmon die-off instead of delivering it to cities and farmers who face a ‘growing water shortage catastrophe.’
     “San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and Westlands Water District sued the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of the Interior in Federal Court, to try to stop the gusher planned for Tuesday.”
     Federal authorities on Aug. 7 announced their intention to release up to 109,000 acre-feet of water to prevent a repeat of a 2002 fish die-off. An acre-foot covers an acre 1 foot deep. It is enough water to supply a typical suburban home for a year.
     In their lawsuit, the water districts claimed that the government is “choosing to make a massive release of stored water from the Trinity Reservoir based on the unproven premise that doing so will reduce the risk of a repeat of the unique 2002 event. For this speculative precautionary benefit, defendants intend to trade the certainty of losing desperately needed water supply in 2013 and deepening the harm to CVP [Central Valley Project] water users and the environment from water shortages.”
     In a motion of opposition on Monday, Uncle Sam said the decision to release the water was made at the request of the Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes, which depend on fall-run Chinook salmon for subsistence and commerce. The Hoopa Valley Tribe is an intervenor-defendant in the case.
     “Granting an injunction would result in immediate and irreparable injury to the federal defendants’ and the public’s interests, including a significant risk of harm to fall-run Chinook salmon in the Klamath and Trinity Rivers and, of special concern, the frustration of the government’s trust responsibility to the Hoopa Valley and Yurok Tribes to restore their fisheries,” the federal defendants wrote in their motion of opposition.
     Judge O’Neill found that the government’s Environmental Assessment, evaluating the impacts of the water releases, “gives little attention to the potential environmental impacts of reduced water supplies to water users in the Sacramento San Joaquin Basin, declaring instead that it is ‘not possible to meaningfully evaluate how a potential slightly lower Trinity River storage in 2014 may exacerbate system-wide supply conditions in the future.’ This is arguably not in conformity with previous rulings in related cases.”
     O’Neill added: “On the one hand, plaintiffs have established that these releases have the potential to reduce further already low water allocations to their members. Although there is dispute over whether such reductions can be reasonably anticipated to follow from the planned releases, if dry conditions persist into the next water year, they are likely to impact next year’s water allocations, with associated economic and environmental impacts.
     “On the other hand, the releases are designed to prevent a potentially serious fish die off impacting salmon populations entering the Klamath River estuary, an event that could have severe impacts on both commercial and tribal fishing interests. However, nothing in the record indicates that delaying the additional flows by several days to permit a more measured analysis of the issues would render ineffective the overall flow augmentations efforts.”
     The water districts were given until Thursday, Aug. 15 to file replies.

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