Court Upholds Water Releases for Salmon on North State Rivers

Water pounds down the spillway from Lewiston Dam on the Trinity River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is increasing flows to aid migrating salmon. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

A federal judge in Fresno has ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation did not violate the law when it made special reservoir releases last year to help salmon in Northern California's Klamath River survive the drought rather than save the water for farms.

But U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill wrote in his ruling Wednesday that the next time the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation wants to release Trinity Lake water for Klamath River salmon, it needs to cite a better legal authority.

The Westlands Water District and the San Louis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority in the San Joaquin Valley had sued the bureau to stop the releases, arguing the water should have been saved for farms facing the drought.

As the drought continued this year, the bureau has again made special releases for Klamath salmon, which the judge also refused to stop, finding that the potential harm from drought to salmon right now was greater than the potential harm to farms next year.

The Trinity River is the biggest tributary of the Klamath River, where tens of thousands of adult salmon died from disease in low water conditions in 2002. Since the 1960s, a major portion of the water from Trinity Reservoir has been diverted to the Central Valley Project, where it helps to irrigate farms. The 1955 law authorizing the diversion contains a provision that the government maintain a minimum flow in the Trinity river to sustain fish and wildlife.

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In the 1984, another law was enacted to restore fish and wildlife in the Trinity to a level roughly equivalent to those before so much water was diverted to Central Valley farms.

Judge O'Neill wrote that the bureau had not violated any laws in making the special releases for salmon, but the authority of the 1955 law — the only authority cited by the bureau — only applied to the Trinity River, and not the Klamath River downstream.

The ruling as praised by Indian tribes and salmon fishermen who have been pressing the bureau to devote more of the Klamath Basin's scarce water to fish.

"Straight up, if the Bureau of Reclamation did not make the decision to augment flows on the Klamath, we would be right now cleaning up thousands of salmon carcasses on the river," Yurok Tribal Chairman Thomas P. O'Rourke said in a statement.

Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman, who represented salmon fishermen and the Yurok Tribe as interveners in the case, said the lack of a specific authority for the releases was a technicality which the bureau should have no trouble overcoming in the future.

A lawyer for Westlands, the nation's largest water provider, did not respond to a telephone call and email seeking comment.