Tribes Push for Higher Profile in Water Wars

By Julie Johnson Pacific News Service
Tuesday June 08, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO—As a number of water contracts in California’s agriculturally rich Central Valley come up for renewal, two California tribes say the pro-agribusiness Bush administration is reneging on government promises made to restore rivers the tribes depend on. 

The concerns of the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes are not always heard, tribal members say, as deals are negotiated in the courts and in government offices to decide how the region’s scarce water resources will be apportioned. Media coverage of California’s “water battles” often leaves tribal voices out as well, the tribes say. 

In a presidential election year, the stakes are high, because water districts are exerting pressure on communities and negotiators to cinch up water deals before a potential new administration with new water policies takes over leadership in the Department of the Interior, says Mike Orcutt, the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s fisheries director. 

In 2002, the death of more than 30,000 salmon along the Klamath River, which is fed by the Hoopa Valley’s Trinity River, attracted a flurry of media coverage that often included tribal voices.  

But in-depth articles are now being written on Pacific Coast water issues without mentioning tribal interests at all. A March 17 story in the Wall Street Journal on water battles in the Central Valley completely overlooked the views of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, says tribal Chairman Clifford Lyle Marshall. 

In a letter to Wall Street Journal editors published April 19, Marshall said the story ignored the huge environmental cost of water diversion schemes designed to provide Central Valley farmers with irrigation: “The fish are dying, threatening our livelihood, and causing economic devastation in Pacific Coast communities from Coos Bay, Ore., to San Francisco Bay.” 

Much of the river water that once coursed naturally from Northern California’s Sierra Mountains to the sea was dammed and diverted in the 1950s for crops in the once-arid Central Valley, now one of the nation’s most lucrative agricultural areas.  

Marshall argues in this letter that U.S. government promises to rehabilitate the Trinity and provide enough water for its salmon are routinely ignored as federal authorities side with “agribusiness giants” and their desire for cheap water.  

The sticking point is a year 2000 agreement, signed by President Clinton’s administration, that said Trinity River water levels were to be brought up to almost half of natural flow—after decades of water levels that dropped to as little as 10 percent of natural flow, due to diversion for hydropower and irrigation. 

But the Westlands Water District—which covers a large swath of the Central Valley—and power suppliers filed a lawsuit, claiming that this change would cause harm to Central Valley residents and businesses.  

That lawsuit is still in the federal court system, and the burden has been put on tribes to prove the drain on water is adversely affecting the river basin and its wildlife. 

The Hoopa tribe, along with the neighboring Yuroks, have put decades of hard scientific research into proving their observations that that low water levels caused by diversion are bad for the fish, says Joseph Orozco, manager of tribal station KIDE 91.3 FM Hoopa Valley Radio.  

The tribes are also weighing in on a related, equally contentious debate concerning the ecological viability of hatchery salmon versus wild salmon stocks.  

Those who say that the Trinity River and other West Coast watersheds are not as threatened as tribes and environmentalists contend base part of their arguments on the fact that hatchery salmon have been successfully introduced into rivers and are living alongside wild salmon stocks.  

Last month, President Bush’s administration proposed, then abandoned, a controversial plan to take many species of West Coast salmon off the Endangered Species list because of the presence of hatchery fish in the rivers.  

Orozco says the tribe is marshaling evidence to prove that hatchery fish are no substitute for wild stock. Plus, he argues wild salmon could be adversely affected by interbreeding with hatchery fish, which are more susceptible to disease and smaller than wild salmon. Worse, he says, the hatchery fish, unused to having to compete for food, also “seem to feed on wild fish eggs.” 

Hupas, who throughout their history have relied on salmon for sustenance, can even taste the difference between the two, an indication of how important healthy salmon stocks are to the tribe’s identity and well being, Orozco says. “Those who have been raised on salmon all their lives can practically tell what creek the fish they eat came from.”  

The tribe has been reaching out to communities with a stake in these water contracts—especially those in the Central Valley—to share their scientific evidence that less water for rivers like the Trinity means starved ecosystems. These efforts contributed to several parties dropping out of the Westlands lawsuit, including the Port of Oakland, the City of Palo Alto and Alameda County, according to Orozco. 

John Fistolera, legislative director of the Northern California Power Agency, one of the lawsuit’s main backers, says the 2000 agreement to restore half the Trinity River’s flow did not fairly account for the adverse effects reduced water would have on agriculture and hydropower in an energy-strapped state.  

The Hoopa tribe, meanwhile, has focused on its own awareness building: One event, begun after the 2002 fish deaths, involves an annual relay-style “fish run” along rivers and streams during spawning season. Students carry batons carved to resemble salmon.  

George Kautsky, deputy director of the neighboring Yurok Tribe Fisheries Department, says the neglect of tribal and environmental interests in Trinity River water negotiations is a long story.  

He says the original 1955 contract dictating use of the Trinity River’s water was a compromise among agriculture, hydroelectric power and local ecosystems.  

“It was a three-legged stool, but the fish and the tribal land were neglected,” Kautsky says. 


Julie Johnson works for NCM, an association of more than 600 print, broadcast and online ethnic media organizations founded in 1996 by Pacific News Service and members of ethnic media.