FRESNO — A federal judge Friday afternoon reversed his earlier ruling and approved sending more water down the Trinity River to help spawning chinook salmon.
After two days of hearings in U.S. District Court in Fresno pitting powerful San Joaquin Valley agricultural interests against Northern California Indian tribes and fishing groups, Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill ruled that higher flows out of Lewiston Dam were needed to prevent a die-off in the Klamath River. "It's a victory for the Klamath River and its fishery-dependent community," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. The ruling came after the Westlands Water District and San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to stop sending more water down the river to prevent fall-run chinook salmon from becoming sick and dying due to crowded and warm water conditions. The judge earlier this month ruled in favor of the water agencies and banned higher flows in the river until hearings Wednesday and Thursday. "Neither side holds veto power over the other," O'Neill said in his ruling, referring to the competing agricultural and fishing interests. "Nevertheless, on balance, considering the significantly lower volume of water now projected to be involved and the potential and enormous risk to the fishery of doing nothing, the court finds it in the public interest to permit the augmentation to proceed." The bureau planned on Aug. 7 to raise releases from Lewiston Dam from 450 cubic-feet-per-second to 1,100 cfs until the last week in September. The water agencies claimed that would harm them by reducing the amount of water available to them from Trinity Lake in coming years. Water from Lewiston and Trinity lakes are part of the Central Valley Water Project. Some of it is piped over the mountains and into the Sacramento River, where it is sent south to the delta and eventually the San Joaquin Valley. The water agencies contended the bureau didn't adequately address the impacts of the higher flows on San Joaquin Valley farmers and that higher flows out of Lewiston Dam violated the Department of the Interior's "record of decision" regulating the amount of water in the river. O'Neill agreed the bureau's environmental analysis "gives little attention" to how the higher flows would affect farmers, but continuing to prohibit sending more water to help the fish would "cause more environmental harm that it would prevent." Spain said it is likely the bureau would have to do a more thorough environmental analysis to prevent a repeat of this year's lawsuit. The fishermen's association and Hoopa Valley Tribe both filed court papers in support of increasing river flows. "The Trinity River is our vessel of life and the salmon are our lifeblood. We applaud the decision to release this water to avert a fish disaster, however this lawsuit demonstrates the need for long-term solutions to the fisheries crisis in the Klamath and Trinity rivers" Hoopa Valley Chairwoman Danielle Vigil-Masten said in a written statement. Fisheries biologists claim water from the Trinity, which flows into the Klamath, would prevent a repeat of a fish die-off similar to one that happened in 2002, when more than 30,500 salmon and steelhead died. Fish experts say that because of low flows, a large run of salmon and warm water temperatures in the Klamath, another fish die-off is imminent this year. About 272,400 chinook are expected to return to the Klamath this year, compared to the 170,000 in the river in 2002, officials said. Flushing higher flows down the Trinity reduces fish crowding, washes pathogens out of the water and cools the river, reducing the likelihood of fish disease and death, officials said.