A Solution for California's Water Woes 

During the drought, the state has failed to safeguard water supplies and the environment, and now there's a growing call to finally fix California's archaic "water rights" system.

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In 2002, the lower Klamath River in Northern California was the site of the largest recorded fish die-off since Europeans first stepped foot on the continent a half a millennium ago. At least 65,000 adult Chinook salmon died due to low summer water flows and not enough cold water in the river because of diversions by the US Bureau of Reclamation.

The Trinity River, which is technically a tributary of the Klamath, is one of the two so-called "headwaters" of the federal government's Central Valley Project — the upper Sacramento River being the other. From the bureau's perspective, the main function of the watersheds is to provide irrigation water for California's agribusiness sector. Thus, in spite of the drought, the bureau still diverted 595,000 acre-feet of Trinity Reservoir water last year to Sacramento and San Joaquin valley water contractors.

Last August, as temperatures in the lower Klamath soared into the 70s, Native American tribal biologists began to discover fish carcasses washed up on shore near the river's confluence with the Trinity. More than two hundred tribal members responded by rallying at the Bureau of Reclamation office in Sacramento to demand that the agency release cold water stored either at Upper Klamath Lake or Trinity Reservoir. The bureau eventually released 60,000 acre-feet of cold water from the Trinity side, helping to blunt the grisly scenario that had begun to unfold.

And longtime observers are warning of even more dire consequences as the federal government continues to pump its customary quantity of the rivers' water to the Sacramento Valley in order to satisfy the demands of senior water rights holders and their desire to sell water to the highest bidders. Right now, the Trinity Reservoir's storage level is even lower than it was at this time last year, and its water temperature is undoubtedly warmer.

"What the Trinity and Klamath are facing is a catastrophe of epic proportions," said Tom Stokely, a resident of the town of Mt. Shasta and a former Trinity County natural resources planner who is now a policy analyst for the conservation group California Water Impact Network.

Largely owing to the long struggle of some of these Native American tribes to maintain federally acknowledged fishing rights, the Klamath-Trinity is home to the largest population of wild salmon of any river system in California, not to mention one of the healthiest populations of steelhead trout in the Lower 48 (although badly depleted from the levels of only a few decades ago). It also has the world's most abundant green sturgeon population. A federal court ruled in 1979 that the tribes are "entitled to as much water on the Reservation lands as they need to protect their hunting and fishing rights," with a priority date of "time immemorial."

At issue, critics point out, is the double standard in the prioritization of water rights holders in California. The Klamath-Trinity indigenous people and other tribes who maintain ties to their aboriginal landbases — such as the Round Valley Indian tribes on the Eel River in Mendocino County — have more senior water rights than anyone. Yet the state and federal governments continue to privilege the rights of Central Valley irrigators.

"The Klamath River people were 'first in time' and therefore are 'first in right' when it comes to allocation of water," said Thomas Schlosser, a Seattle-based attorney for the Hoopa Valley tribe, in an interview. "Even under United States and California constitutional case law, the rights of irrigation districts to the water is subordinate to that of the tribes."

Nonetheless, last month, the California Department of Water Resources finished work on a 750-foot rockwall dam in the bay-delta known as the False River Barrier, which creates a barrier between the bay's tidal saltwater and freshwater entering the delta from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The barrier ensures the quality of water shipped from north to south.

Environmentalists have lambasted the new dam (which state agencies claim is temporary and will be removed in November), because it partitions the delta, thereby reducing the availability of habitat for endangered fish at a time when they've already been pushed to the brink. In April, a trawl that monitors the delta smelt's population found only one fish (for more, see "The Drought's Scapegoat," 7/1).

"Regulatory officials have never pushed the pendulum so far away from protecting our fish and wildlife resources and maximizing the amount of water that's being delivered for irrigation," said Gary Bobker, director of the Bay Institute's Rivers and Delta Program. "It's an unprecedented situation."

On the surface, the State Water Resources Control Board has recently appeared to many observers to becoming a bit more progressive. Last month, the board passed emergency regulations requiring 13,000 Sonoma County property owners near four Russian River tributaries to cut back on water use and report how much water they suck up from their wells in an effort to protect endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout. All four of these tributaries have seen an explosion of wine-grape plantings in the past several years (see "Turning Water Into Wine," 5/27). Rarely before has the state required that well-water users report how much they're using.

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