California's Trinity River Getting Fish-Friendly Makeover

By Cat Lazaroff

HOOPA, California, December 19, 2000 (ENS) - After 20 years of planning, the U.S. Interior Department today released its final blueprint for restoring fish populations in the mainstem of the Trinity River. Since the river was dammed in 1962, up to 90 percent of its flow has been diverted into the Sacramento River to serve cities and agriculture.


When the Trinity Dam was completed in 1963, it helped cut off access to 109 miles of salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing habitat (Four photos courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)
An average of 70 percent of Trinity Basin water is exported over the mountains, to the Sacramento River and the Central Valley of California. Over time, these exports have had serious, negative impacts on the river and on the fish that depend upon the river.

The new plan will cut the exports to 52 percent and make other changes to help struggling fish populations and the nearby Native American tribes that depend on them.

"This decision is 20 years in the making," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "It reflects our commitment and obligation to protect both fish and wildlife species, and to fulfill our trust responsibilities to the tribes living in the region who have fished on the Trinity River for thousands of years. This decision also allows for 52 percent of the water from the Trinity to be exported to the Central Valley for water use and power generation."

In 1955, Congress authorized the construction and operation of a dam and other facilities on the Trinity River in northern California as part of the Central Valley Project, which provides water and electricity to much of central California's heavily agricultural regions. The dam blocked access to 109 miles of salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing habitat.


Water from the Trinity River is diverted into the Sacramento River at Lewiston dam. The power plant at this dam supplies Western Area Power Administration consumers
Since the dam was completed, chinook salmon in the Trinity have decreased by 67 percent, coho by 93 percent and steelhead by 53 percent. Coho salmon that use the Trinity River are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The interests, and in particular, the reserved fishing interest, of the Hoopa Valley Tribe whose reservation borders the Trinity River, and the Yurok Tribe whose reservation borders the Klamath river downstream from its confluence with the Trinity, have also been affected.

Development of a river restoration proposal for naturally reproducing fish was mandated by, among other things, a 1981 Secretarial Decision and federal law, the 1984 Trinity River Restoration Act and 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act.


With most of its water diverted for municipal and agricultural uses, the Trinity River is just a trickle below the diversions
The Interior Department's decision attempts to balance the Trinity River mainstem restoration with continuing agricultural and municipal needs.

The proposal includes:

"The decision by Interior Secretary Babbitt to sign the Record of Decision for returning flows to the Trinity River is of monumental importance to the Hoopa People in the sustenance of our resources and culture," said the Hoopa Valley tribal council chair, Duane Sherman Sr.. "Many people from both sides of the aisle and many different agencies can now stand without hesitation to accept the responsibility that goes along with this decision and the gratitude of the Hoopa People."


The restoration plan will restore the upstream watershed of the Trinity River and improve fish habitat
The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) from the Interior Department analyzes power generation issues and other potential impacts or benefits as a result of each of the alternatives proposed in the FEIS. The Trinity River Diversion accounts for about 25 percent of the Central Valley Project's hydroelectric capacity, which is about one percent of current California demand and less than one percent of projected 2010 demands.

The change in capacity attributable to the Preferred Alternative, made final today, is less than four-tenths of one percent.

In terms of water use, the FEIS found that implementation of the Preferred Alternative could result in decreases in Central Valley Project deliveries and Delta exports by two percent in average years and four percent in dry years. However, the Trinity River Preferred Alternative was taken into consideration in the CALFED process, an $8 billion joint federal-state project to restore the San Francisco Bay Delta and end water wars between cities, farms and environmental needs.


Chinook and coho salmon, and steelhead, will benefit from the river restoration plan (Two photos courtesy Bonneville Power Administration)
Farmers and ranchers in the Central Valley and other areas south of the Delta who depend on water from the Central Valley Project have seen their supplies steadily decline as water is diverted to help fish. This year, those agricultural interests will only receive about 75 percent of their total water contract amounts.

The Interior Department said today that the CALFED project will allow these farmers to continue to receive 65 percent of their total water contracts, despite the new cuts in the Trinity restoration project.

Trinity River water goes principally to the Westlands Water District, which signed its first contract for water delivery with the Bureau of Reclamation in 1963. Last Thursday, the Westlands Water District sought a court injunction to block the expected decision from the Interior Department, but a federal judge denied the request on Friday.


New gravel beds will be created as habitat for young salmon
"The decision by Secretary Babbitt is a necessary and good start to restoring fish populations to the Trinity River and upholding the federal government's trust obligation to the Tribe," said Yurok Tribe chairperson Susan Masten. "Yurok traditions and culture depend upon healthy fish populations in the Klamath/Trinity Basins. This is a start. The Yurok Tribe looks forward to working with all parties to make the goals of the Record of Decision reality."

Copies of the final report can be found on the Internet at