TAPPING THE TRINITY
 

The Oregonian; Portland, Or.; Oct 27, 2002;

By MICHAEL MILSTEIN

Abstract:

Instead of rushing into the Klamath and west to the ocean, the Trinity River collects behind Trinity Dam. The dam reroutes as much as nine of every 10 gallons through an 11-mile tunnel east out of the Klamath drainage and into the Sacramento River. There it joins water from other Northern California reservoirs and flows south toward San Francisco Bay.

The district has a contract with the federal government for 1.15 million acre-feet of water annually, more than twice what the Klamath Project uses. But like the Klamath Project, Westlands has felt squeezed by drought and water set-asides for endangered species and other wildlife.

A study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year found that higher releases from Trinity Dam would cool the Trinity River and counteract the warm Klamath downstream, making the water safer for salmon. Amid the die-off, state, federal and tribal biologists pleaded for more water in both the Klamath and Trinity.

Full Text:

Summary: The nation's largest-known salmon die-off leads biologists and the Bush administration to consider cutting off California and keeping more water in the Klamath River system's largest tributary More water from the Klamath River system flows to the rich vegetable, cotton and nut fields in California's Central Valley than to farms in the Klamath Project on the Oregon-California line.

It moves through immense tunnels and canals from the Klamath's biggest tributary, the Trinity River in Northern California. As much as 90 percent of the Trinity's water, which would otherwise flow into the Klamath and out to sea, instead rushes south toward California's thirsty center.

When more than 33,000 migrating salmon died in the dwindling, overheated water of the lower Klamath last month, most were struggling home to the Trinity to spawn, biologists say.

In an unusual show of support for a Clinton administration policy, Bush administration officials say they want more water in the Trinity. And studies suggest that the cooler Trinity water might have aided the dying fish.

But Bush officials looked instead to the Klamath Project in Oregon for water to end the fish kill, because water headed for California is locked in a ferocious fight that leaves not a drop to spare.

"The water from the Klamath Project is only a part of the water in the system, but it's the easiest part to get," said Jeffrey McCracken of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

No one wants to take blame for the fish kill, the largest known U.S. die-off of adult salmon. But Klamath farmers, who went without irrigation water last summer for the sake of protected fish, argue that they are shouldering undue responsibility for the dead fish and for other ills that extend far beyond their fields.

"People are concerned at how focused the hostility has been on us, when all the while a relatively clean and cold Trinity River is sitting there and hardly a topic of conversation," said Michael Connelly, who farms and ranches near Bonanza, Ore.

If last summer's cutoff of irrigation water to Klamath Project farmers exposed a river system stretched to the limit, it stretches tighter still when the demands of California, the nation's thirstiest state, are figured in.

"All of this is going to be a huge balancing problem," said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, a top aide to Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the administration's point official on Klamath. "We didn't get here in a day, and we've got to bring it back over time without causing major dislocations for people."

Water is always part of conversation in such worn California farm towns as Mendota, Huron and Tranquility. They get their water from the massive Central Valley Project, a billion-dollar federal irrigation works that is a monument to western ambition. Without it the valley, which gets scarcely 10 inches of rain a year, would be a sun-baked plain.

The project begins in the north with the Trinity and ends 400 miles south with the Westlands Water District, the largest irrigation district in the nation.

Instead of rushing into the Klamath and west to the ocean, the Trinity River collects behind Trinity Dam. The dam reroutes as much as nine of every 10 gallons through an 11-mile tunnel east out of the Klamath drainage and into the Sacramento River. There it joins water from other Northern California reservoirs and flows south toward San Francisco Bay.

A gigantic pumping plant intercepts it in the Sacramento Delta, slurping it up and into the Delta-Mendota Canal. A second plant boosts more water into the California Aqueduct on its way to Southern California cities, including Los Angeles and San Diego. The pumps operate only when incoming flows maintain the water quality of the Delta.

The Delta-Mendota Canal carries water south to the computer chip- makers of Silicon Valley and a series of farming districts, concluding with Westlands.

"In fact, San Diego is connected to the Klamath River, because Trinity water in the Delta also supports water quality that makes it possible to get water to Southern California," says Tom Birmingham, the intense and carefully spoken manager of Westlands. "Literally the entire state of California is plumbed, from the north end of the state to the south end, and every basin is connected."

At 605,000 acres, Westlands is bigger than Rhode Island. For two months of the year, its prolific farms produce nine of every 10 heads of lettuce in the nation. Half the nation's garlic grows here. And one of every five tomatoes.

John Deere cotton pickers navigate fields deep into the night, and warehouse-size cotton gins roar around the clock, turning out more than 800 million-T-shirts worth of downy, government- subsidized cotton.

All told, the district calculates that it is a $3.5 billion slice of the California economy. Its farmers must repay their share of the Central Valley Project construction costs, but most pay no interest - - a benefit worth close to $1 billion, the U.S. General Accounting Office found.

Farms in Fresno County, which encompasses most of Westlands, boasted a higher net return than those in any other U.S. county, according to the last Census of Agriculture, completed in 1997. No other county held as many farms with sales of more than $100,000.

Fresno County farms also topped the national list in agricultural subsidies, taking in $17.5 million. That's roughly 20 times the subsidies that went to farms in Oregon's Klamath County, which encloses much of the Klamath Project.

Westlands also wields serious political clout.

It has allies high in the Interior Department, which oversees water policy. Birmingham is a famously tenacious water attorney. The district has spent more than $500,000 to lobby Congress and the California Legislature since 1999, according to state and federal records.

And the district is still waiting for the government to build it a congressionally mandated drainage system to handle farm runoff laden with toxic salts and metals. An initial attempt poisoned waterfowl in national wildlife refuges, and any future system is likely to cost $1 billion or more.

The district has a contract with the federal government for 1.15 million acre-feet of water annually, more than twice what the Klamath Project uses.

But like the Klamath Project, Westlands has felt squeezed by drought and water set-asides for endangered species and other wildlife. It has not received full water deliveries in more than a decade. In an average year, its farms are likely to get about half what the contract calls for, Birmingham says.

They make up the rest by purchasing water from other farms and by idling cropland. Many have installed drip irrigation lines to conserve water and turned to more profitable crops, such as almonds and pistachios, to cover the escalating price of federal water, which now includes fees for environmental restoration.

But cotton remains by far the district's largest crop, although farmers concede they could never grow it without government water subsidies.

Westlands has claimed water used by other farms. It's also pursuing a federal buyout and the retirement of about 200,000 acres of cropland. That would free more reliable water for remaining farms. In exchange, the district would let the government off the hook for the billion-dollar drainage system.

"Basically we're having to pay more and more for less and less water," Westlands farmer Ted Sheely said. "Anything that affects the balance of water we get obviously is critical to our future." Including new demands on the Trinity and the Klamath.

About 20 percent of the Klamath drainage's original salmon habitat remains, and coho salmon numbers have fallen as much as 95 percent. Private irrigation diversions can turn small California tributaries such as the Scott and Shasta into trickles.

In recent weeks, state biologists have reported salmon forming schools where the Scott joins the Klamath because there was too little water for them to swim up the Scott.

In 1992, Congress ordered studies of Trinity fisheries as part of an environmental overhaul of the Central Valley Project. That led to a 2000 decision by then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to send more water down the Trinity for fish, leaving less for the Central Valley and Westlands.

It especially jacked up spring flows to scour the river and make it more hospitable to salmon. That could leave Westlands with 20 percent less water and, added to earlier cuts, would be "devastating," Birmingham said.

Westlands, other irrigation districts and a Sacramento power company sued to block the Babbitt plan. They argued that it went too far in redirecting water into the Trinity and ignored how that might harm wildlife on the Sacramento side.

A federal judge agreed. Until the lawsuit is resolved, which could take years, the judge has barred the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from pouring more water into the Trinity if it would short Central Valley farms.

Although the Bush administration has sought to undo many of former President Clinton's environmental initiatives, Wooldridge said officials see higher Trinity River flows as an element of a healthier Klamath system. That's why it has joined Native American tribes and fishermen in backing the Babbitt decision, she said.

"You don't take 90 percent of the water out of a river and think good things are going to happen over time," she said. "None of these systems stand alone. They all run together, and the Trinity flows would obviously help the lower Klamath.

You've got to get the fish recovered, or everyone's going to keep having these major problems."

A new federal estimate puts the toll of last month's fish kill at 33,000, most of them chinook salmon but says that number is conservative. Electronic tags on many salmon showed that most of the dead were headed to the Trinity to spawn.

The main Klamath was flowing lower than it did during last summer's drought because Klamath Project farmers received a full water allotment this year.

Migrating fish crammed into the river's mouth, where warm water fueled deadly disease.

Farmers and the Bush administration say there is no proof that irrigation diversions caused the fish die-off. It remains unclear whether and how more water from the upper end of the drainage, where the Klamath Project stores water in Oregon's shallow, warm Upper Klamath Lake, would have relieved the die-off.

"To the extent it provided more room in the river for the fish, it would have helped," said James Lecky, assistant regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

A study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year found that higher releases from Trinity Dam would cool the Trinity River and counteract the warm Klamath downstream, making the water safer for salmon. Amid the die-off, state, federal and tribal biologists pleaded for more water in both the Klamath and Trinity.

But Bush officials said the Westlands lawsuit over the Trinity prohibited extra releases there, and instead sent a two-week "pulse" of water down the Klamath. By the time it arrived, fish numbers had dwindled and the die-off was subsiding.

Mary Nichols, California's resources secretary, pointed to the Klamath Project in Oregon as the convenient spigot. If not for low flows there, she said in a letter to Norton, "this tragedy would likely have been avoided."

"The irony of that argument is that sending more hot water from here is not going to fix it," said Connelly, the Klamath farmer. "But the powers that be aren't looking elsewhere for a solution because taking on Westlands is not a politically expedient thing to do."

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

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