People Before Fish, Water Districts Insist

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – 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.
     “On August 7, 2013, defendants announced that beginning on August 13 they will release up to 109,000 acre-feet of water from the already low storage in the CVP’s [Central Valley Project] Trinity Reservoir to the Trinity River. That water, so needed by farms and communities in the western San Joaquin Valley, will be irretrievably lost,” the water districts say in the lawsuit.
     An acre foot of water – enough to cover 1 acre 1 foot deep – could supply a typical suburban home for a year: 325,841 gallons.
     “Defendants’ purpose in making these illegal releases of stored CVP water is to reduce the risk of a possible salmon die-off from disease in the lower Klamath River, downstream of the confluence of the Klamath River and Trinity River. Such a die-off in the lower Klamath River has been documented only one previous year, in 2002. Indeed, years with numbers of returning Chinook salmon and flows in the lower Klamath River similar to the conditions expected this year have not resulted in salmon die-offs,” the complaint states.
     “Defendants are thus choosing to make a massive release of stored water from the Trinity Reservoir based on the unproven premise that doing so well 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 water users and the environment from water shortage.”
     Years of drought are hurting farms and cities that need water from the Central Valley Project. Already this year, CVP agricultural water service contractors south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers Delta have had their allocation of 25 percent of their contract supply cut to 20 percent because of drought, the water districts say in the complaint.
     “Orchards and vineyards are suffering severe stress, and row crops have been abandoned and other fields have been left fallow. Already overtaxed groundwater aquifers are being further drained, and in desperation farmers are using poor quality groundwater that damages soil and plants,” the complaint states.
     The Bureau of Reclamation predicts that the Trinity Reservoir’s water level will be well below average next year, and water services south of the Delta could receive a 0 percent allocation of their contract supply, unless an extraordinarily wet winter comes along, the water districts say in the complaint.
     “Farm workers, farm-related businesses and whole farm communities on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley face a growing water shortage catastrophe. This water shortage is causing physical, social, and economic damage on a landscape scale.
     “Given this calamity, it is unthinkable that the defendants would unlawfully release water from CVP storage to the ocean instead of delivering that supply to water users who desperately need it,” the lawsuit states.
     In August and September 2012, nearly 40,000 acre-feet of water were released from the Trinity Reservoir to try to prevent a salmon die-off. Though the government promised to mitigate the harm done to farmers, they are still suffering from that lost water, the districts say. And the defendants still have not developed a long-term strategy for fish in the lower Klamath River, the water districts say in the complaint.
     The water districts claim the 2012 releases were unlawful, as are the planned releases: they violate the government’s mandatory, statutory duties.
     Under the Decision for Trinity River Mainstem Fisher Restoration, “in 2013 defendants may release up to but not exceeding 453,000 acre-feet of water from the Trinity River Division for the purposes of fishery restoration, propagation and maintenance. If defendants make the planned August and September fishery releases, they will far exceed the 453,000 acre-feet volume limit,” the water districts say.
     The Bureau of Reclamation has not identified or analyzed the effects the releases will have on the environment, in an environmental impact statement, which is required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
     The gusher will have wide-ranging environmental impacts, from adverse affects on pond turtles and yellow-legged frogs to fallowing and groundwater overdraft.
     “While defendants have attempted to minimize or dismiss such effects in their environmental assessment, at a minimum the available information raises substantial questions whether the releases may have a significant effect on the environment,” the water districts say in the complaint.
     The Hoopa Valley Tribe, which makes a living off of fish in the Trinity River, intervened as a defendant.
     “Our fisheries scientists are very concerned about developing fish disease conditions in the Lower Klamath River, conditions that will affect the salmon runs returning to the Trinity River. Accordingly, the Hoopa Valley Tribe has strongly supported the decision of the Bureau of Reclamation to release additional Trinity River water to ameliorate conditions in the Lower Klamath River. A die-off of Trinity River salmon, if it were to occur again this year, would be very harmful to the many Hoopa tribal members who rely upon these fish,” tribal Chairwoman Danielle Vigil-Masten wrote in a declaration in support of the motion to intervene.
     The water districts want the gusher enjoined as unlawful.
     They are represented by Daniel J. O’Hanlon with Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann & Girard in Sacramento.

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