A massive tug of war for water on the Trinity River needed to keep a bumper crop of salmon alive is playing out in a Fresno federal court this week. Officials expect more than 271,000 adult salmon to return to the Klamath and Trinity River within days. In many stretches of the rivers, warm water temperatures lethal to spawning salmon await their return. The Bureau of Reclamation, not wanting a massive fish kill on its hands again, planned to release at least 62,000 acre-feet of cold water from Trinity Lake to cool the rivers. But San Joaquin Valley growers, led by Westlands Irrigation District, said no, that they should be given that water and they sued to get it.
Being more than 300 miles away from the Klamath and its main tributary, the Trinity River, many wonder what claim San Joaquin growers have on water from a far North Coast river. If you guessed the industrial growers had made political friends years ago that gave them a stake in the North Coast water, against all common sense and environmental sensibility, you'd be right. The growers have junior water rights, meaning they can access water in extra wet years when there's a surplus, which this year is not.
So far, signals from the court don't look good for salmon. Salmon advocates and Indian tribes have intervened in the court proceedings to argue for the salmon water.
If the court ultimately denies the salmon the water they need, the best we can hope for is for an appeals court to reverse such a ruling before it is too late. In the meantime, we also hope that salmon aren't forced to crowd together in the deeper, colder spots, like they did in 2002, which led to disease spreading among them like wildfire, killing more than 65,000 before they could lay their eggs.
After 2002, the Klamath and Trinity River salmon stocks fell like a rock, leading to massive unemployment in the salmon fishing industry by 2006, and in many coastal communities. It has taken years to restore these runs, and coastal economies are just now starting to come back.
There are many workers and families who rely on these salmon as well as Indian tribes on the Klamath and Trinity rivers. Allowing industrial growers more than 300 miles away with junior water rights to divert a river under extreme stress ignores real justice, the salmon fishery and the environment.
John McManus is the executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a coalition representing commercial and recreational salmon fishermen and related businesses.