A River Emptied By Dams And Diversions: Two Perspectives On the Trinity

December, 2009

Caught between a water grab to the south and the tumultuous Klamath knot to the north, the Trinity River flows from its headwaters in the Trinity Alps to Trinity and Lewiston Dams, where flows are diverted south to quench the mounting thirst of Central Valley agriculture.

The Trinity once supported large runs of steelhead, fall and spring chinook salmon, and smaller runs of coho salmon. Those days are gone. While hatchery runs of steelhead and fall chinook remain abundant, wild runs of all species are seriously threatened.

To make any sense of the complex web of politics a-swirl over this important tributary to the Klamath River, an understanding of the political history of dams and water diversions is necessary. 

Following are two analyses of this complicated history from the Hoopa Valley Tribe – whose people have resided along the Trinity for millennia – and from the NEC’s representative to the Trinity restoration’s public advisory  group. 

A History Of Broken Promises

Trinity River, Photo: Pat Jackson, Jackson Web Design and Photography

The discovery of gold in the 1840s changed the face of the Trinity River forever. Irresponsible mining practices altered the natural course of the river and left it contaminated with heavy metals. Fish survived, but the next fatal blow, dams and diversions, will take decades to correct.

When Congress approved the diversion of the Trinity River to the Central Valley in 1955, Congressman Clair Engle said, “Not one bucket full of water will go into the Central Valley until the needs of the Trinity River are met.”

Despite his good intent, the promise was never kept. From 1963 to 2004, about 90 percent of the Trinity River was diverted to the Central Valley. 

“Within 10 years after the Trinity River Diversion began, 80 percent of the Trinity’s fishery resources were destroyed,” said Mike Orcutt, director of the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s Fisheries Department. “We have been working ever since to restore them.” 

While the Tribe continues to seek promised help for already under-funded Trinity River restoration efforts, the state and federal government are passing legislation that could negatively impact the river even more.

The Water Transfers Facilitation Act of 2009, introduced in October by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, could grant permanent authority to the Bureau of Reclamation to approve and expedite Central Valley Project water transfers of up to 250,000 to 300,000 acre-feet per year above and beyond what they are currently authorized to transfer. 

Feinstein staffers insist the bill will not affect Trinity River supplies, but river advocates are skeptical due to the bill’s lack of protections for the fishery needs of the Trinity. Trinity River advocates also question why the benefit of speedier transfers is being given to contractors, who get rich by selling Trinity River water, when the contractors haven’t fulfilled their current obligations to the restoration projects.

Word has it Feinstein is considering amendments to the bill that would remove all north-of-the-delta water transfers and require that transfers not harm other environmental commitments. Feinstein’s office needs an urging from the public that this bill, H.R. 1759, keep protections for the Trinity River Restoration Program at the forefront.

“The Trinity River and its communities have sacrificed enough,” Orcutt said. “But it continues to be some of the most sought-after water in the state and our guarantees of water and restoration continue to go undelivered.”

Bay Delta Bill Package

In November, the State legislature passed an $11.1 billion bill package that aims to overhaul California’s water supply system. 

The package’s focus—although it incorporates many other perks to entice southern California voters and appease dam-removal proponents to the north—is to chart a process for overhaul of the Bay Delta system. Some call it improved conveyance, conservation and restoration plan. Others call it a plan for the Peripheral Canal. Most agree that the Bay Delta system is in dire straits, but few agree on how to solve the crisis.

The Hoopa Valley Tribe recognizes the desperate state of the Bay Delta system, but believes building a more efficient system of moving water from north to south could be detrimental to the Trinity River.

“The plumbing exists to move the Trinity River from its origin all the way to Los Angeles,” Orcutt said. “We fear an improved conveyance system in the Delta poses a danger to the Trinity River if pre-existing promises are not fulfilled.”

Restoration Efforts Undermined

Currently, Trinity River restoration is funded at about 50 percent of what was promised.

In the ‘90s, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior and the Hoopa Valley Tribe to adjust diversions of the Trinity River and prepare a fishery restoration plan, stating that water and power contractors were to pay the cost of restoration.

In 2000, just days before the Clinton Administration exited the White House, then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and the Hoopa Valley Tribe signed the Record of Decision (ROD) – which outlined a plan for recovery of the Trinity River and its fish and wildlife populations. The ceremonial signing took place at a Trinity River site that has been sacred to Hoopa people for thousands of years.

Before the ink was dry, Central Valley contractors filed a lawsuit to stop the restoration efforts. Westlands Water District and others fought to evade their financial responsibility for environmental restoration.

During the litigation, flows were locked in favor of Central Valley interests until 2004 when a court ruled in favor of the 2000 ROD, stating that restoration efforts were “unlawfully overdue.”

About 43 percent of Trinity River water began to flow its natural course, to the Lower Klamath River and then to the sea.

Humboldt’s Missing Water

Prior to congressional approval of The Trinity River Division Act in 1955, Humboldt County residents and politicians fought to prevent the diversion, but to no avail. 

The five-year fight ended with the act being passed, but with a provision for Humboldt County.

“Not less than 50,000 acre-feet shall be released annually from the Trinity Reservoir and made available to Humboldt County and downstream water users,” reads the second proviso in the 1955 Act. Although this was reaffirmed with a Bureau of Reclamation contract in 1959, the water was never delivered. 

“That 50,000 acre-feet of Trinity River water has the potential to greatly improve conditions on the mainstem Trinity River and the Lower Klamath River,” Orcutt said. “The time is ripe to secure that delivery for the benefit of Humboldt County in light of the water crisis affecting California.”

The California Department of Water Resources estimates that an acre-foot of water is worth about $32.50. That means about $1.6 million worth of Humboldt County water is being exported to the Central Valley.

Tom Stokely, long-time Trinity River advocate and water policy coordinator for the California Water Impact Network, said, “There is no other cold, clean water available in the Klamath-Trinity system. Without it, I believe the fish are at a huge risk.”

For more information about the Trinity River and current efforts to protect it, contact the Hoopa Valley Tribal Fisheries Department at (530) 625-4267 x12 or the Trinity River Restoration Program at (530)623-1800.

New Water Grab Threatens River Recovery

Trinity River, Photo: Samp Camp, ©

The Trinity River Division, passed by an act of Congress in 1955, authorized construction of two dams, power plants, a hatchery, and diversion tunnels on the upper Trinity, with the goal of diverting water for use in Central Valley agriculture, 400 miles away. 

When the dams were completed in 1963, the largest tributary of the Klamath River suddenly became a tributary to the Sacramento River. Despite promises that no more than half of the upper Trinity’s waters would be diverted, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) began sending 90 percent of the water south – resulting in a near complete collapse of the fishery by the mid-1970s. 

Flows were increased slightly during the ’80s, and a restoration program was initiated that included a 12-year study to determine how much water was required to maintain a healthy fishery. 

Then, on a warm and lovely day in December of 2000, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt came to Hoopa Valley to sign the Record of Decision (ROD) on Trinity River flows. 

This event was to make restitution for all the damage the federal government had done to the rivers and fisheries of the Trinity Basin: a new beginning and a path to healing and restoration, not only for the river and fisheries, as Babbitt pointed out, but for the people of the Trinity River basin.

The Record of Decision, the outcome of 20 years of studies, mandated increased flows in the river, returning base flows to the roughly 50 percent originally promised, along with a large restoration program. 

After Secretary Babbit had finished the usual litany of thanks to the various players, he concluded, “And as for the Bureau of Reclamation, I’d like to say one thing: It’s never too late to repent your sins…”

New Threats 

Now, in a tandem move that could once again threaten Trinity River flows, the USBR and the state of California are setting the stage for increased water diversions to central and southern California. 

The Bureau of Reclamation, which constructs and manages federal dam projects in the western U.S., has applied to the State Water Resource Control Board for the extension of antiquated permits that allow for diverting up to 90 percent of the Trinity’s waters. These permits, created in the 1960’s, do not reflect 40 years of damage to the fisheries and habitat in the Trinity, or the Record of Decision that seeks to restore Trinity fisheries. 

Although the USBR is under the Department of the Interior, it appears they intend to ignore the 2000 Record of Decision.

In response, Friends of the Trinity River board members Tom Weseloh and Byron Leydecker sent a letter to USBR in October asking the Bureau to withdraw the application. 

The letter pointed out that Trinity Lake is being drawn down and diverted in violation of official state water quality objectives, and that this diversion is at the expense of Trinity River fisheries. 

Weseloh and Leydecker request that “sufficient cold water is retained in Trinity Lake to prevent a drawdown of that water such that Trinity River could reach lethal temperatures for fish in late summer, temperatures that exceed state mandates.” 

“No one wants a re-run of the disastrous Klamath fish kill,” their letter reminds the USBR officials.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency that oversees ocean fisheries and habitat, and is an arm of the Department of Commerce, sent their own letter to USBR in November to protest the petition to extend the permits for the Central Valley Project (CVP). 

NMFS recently released a Biological Opinion that concludes that “proposed operations were likely to jeopardize five listed species throughout the range of the CVP” (from the Trinity to the San Joaquin River.) It provides a set of actions as a “reasonable and prudent alternative,” as required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

Formal ESA consultations between NMFS and the Bureau of Reclamation regarding water permits on the Trinity are scheduled to be completed early next year.

Learn More 

For more indepth information about Trinity River politics and restoration efforts, visit:

Friends of the Trinity River
  Trinity River Restoration Program

Central Valley Project

Additionally, Trinity County and the California Water Impact Network have filed protests with the Bureau, citing conflicts of interest and the potential threat to fisheries presented by a permit extension. 

Emelia Berol is the NEC’s representative to the Trinity Adaptive Management Working Group, a public advisory group to the Trinity River Restoration Program’s management council. She has been attending meetings, photographing, writing about,  and documenting the Trinity River and its tributaries since 1993.