Water & Drought

Trump administration threatens jail time for California officials over river project

The Trump administration and California officials have sued each other, swapped insults on Twitter and clashed on everything from climate change to immigration.

But threatening someone with jail time? That might be a new one.

The threats came in a dispute over reintroducing winter-run Chinook salmon into the McCloud River, a pristine river above Shasta Dam, as part of a federal plan approved under the Obama administration to try to stave off extinction for the critically endangered fish.

In preparation for the project, the California Department of Water Resources stockpiled netting, buoys and floating docks on a boat ramp controlled by the U.S. Forest Service at Shasta Lake, into which the McCloud flows.

Before the equipment could be set out on the lake’s McCloud River arm, the Trump administration put a hold on the project — and then ordered DWR to remove the equipment under threat of fines and jailing.

The Forest Service, in a Sept. 6 cease-and-desist letter, told DWR the lack of a special-use permit for the project could constitute a violation of a federal regulation.

“Violation of this regulation is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $5,000 or up to six (6) months in jail, or both,” Forest Service district ranger Ben Sundal wrote in a Sept. 6 cease-and-desist letter to Randy Beckwith, a DWR senior engineer.

Nobody’s being taken away in handcuffs, though.

DWR spokesman Ryan Endean said the state had “put the project on pause” after another federal agency that manages Shasta Dam, the Bureau of Reclamation, backed off on its support for the plan. Then, after the Forest Service issued its cease-and-desist letter, the state decided to pull the equipment off the ramp “while we figure everything out,” he said.

The state finished removing the equipment last Thursday, he said.

As for the threat of jail and fines, the state said it wasn’t rattled or offended.

“We viewed it as standard boilerplate language and it was not a concern to staff,” said Kris Tjernell, a DWR deputy director, in a prepared statement.

Carol Underhill, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, called it “standard language for any letter” addressed to someone operating on agency land without the proper permit.

Why the project has been put on hold is a little unclear. Underhill said the Forest Service can’t issue its permit until the federal Bureau of Reclamation “lifts its pause” on the project.

Reclamation spokesman Jeff Hawk said his agency and DWR are still working out the details of the project, including environmental reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act. “We aren’t there yet,” he said. “We’re still having those conversations with DWR.”

The fish-introduction project is opposed by the area’s congressman, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, said LaMalfa’s spokesman Parker Williams. He didn’t say why LaMalfa is opposed.

Environmentalists said they’re dismayed that the project has stalled.

Noah Oppenheim, head of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said it could reflect the Trump administration’s general opposition to environmental restoration projects, but especially “trap and haul” programs that would attempt to bring fish like the Chinook back to their traditional habitat above the giant dams around California’s Central Valley.

The dams are used to store water for the state’s major cities and for Central Valley farmers. Oppenheim said California water users have opposed plans to bringing fish above their water supply.

“In California, it’s like water users are allergic to fish passage,” Oppenheim said.

The McCloud River trap and haul project has been in the works since 2009, as part of a winter-run recovery plan signed off by the Obama administration. The project gained momentum in 2015, when California’s historic drought drove the population of the winter-run Chinook salmon, already listed as an endangered species, to critically-low numbers.

Before Shasta Dam was constructed in the 1930s and 40s, winter-run Chinook evolved to swim up the McCloud River to lay their eggs during the heat of the summer. Chinook need cold rivers to thrive, and the spring-fed McCloud remains frigid year-round.

In the decades since, the fish have been forced to spawn in the Sacramento River below the dam in Redding’s blast furnace summers. During the drought, the water below the dam grew too hot and nearly all of the winter-run eggs and young fish died because of the warm flows.

In an effort to remedy that, officials said they were going to take truckloads of young salmon raised at the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery, at the base of Shasta Dam, and deliver them to a spot on the McCloud.

The young salmon would stay in the river, where they could thrive in the McCloud’s cooler waters until they were old enough to migrate. Then they’d be snared in the equipment set up where the McCloud flows into Shasta Lake, put back on trucks, and dropped off in the Sacramento River just below the dam for their voyage to the ocean.

The plan called for DWR to run the $9 million operation and get reimbursed for all but $500,000 of the cost by the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam.

So far the state has spent $2 million on the project and expects that Reclamation will fulfill “its obligations for money already spent,” Tjernell said.

The equipment that’s been yanked out of the reservoir is being stored at a Reclamation yard in Red Bluff, about 40 miles south of the lake, Hawk said.

Meanwhile, the government has made some progress on reintroducing Chinook into the upper Sacramento Valley river system. Last year, the federal government reported that it had begun stocking fish above a small dam on Battle Creek, another tributary of the Sacramento, with juvenile salmon in a project designed to run parallel with the McCloud River plan.

Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.
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