Let the river flow: victory for indigenous people and salmon

By Terry Winckler: There are few victories sweeter and more dramatic than the one just wrested by Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman and his tribal allies in a Fresno, California courtroom last week. They did nothing less than save an entire run of chinook salmon from a corporate grab of the water needed by those fish to survive their spawning run up the Klamath/Trinity rivers system.

The drama–and believe me, it was a mix of theater, unexpected turnarounds, and life-or-death arguments–climaxed late yesterday when a judge agreed that these salmon need the water more than the mega-farms which wanted it as a hedge against next year’s bottom line.

Dozens of Native America tribal members demonstrated outside the courtroom as U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence O’Neill heard the warning of what happened 12 years ago during a drought year like this on that same river system. That year, a water grab authorized by the Bush administration left as many as 70,000 salmon dead in the rivers, with the next generation rotting in their bellies.

Years later, those rivers were empty of salmon, as were the larders of tribes along the river, and the future of the commercial/recreational fishing industry that depends on healthy salmon runs. The collapse of the fishery was so severe that California and Oregon declared formal states of emergency, and Congress appropriated $60 million in disaster relief for fishermen.

The spectre of the 2002 disaster and scientific testimony that showed it could happen again this year convinced Judge O’Neill to let the Trinity River flow into its natural bed, rather than allow its diversion hundreds of miles south to Central Valley mega-farms.

If it sounds like a no-brainer, consider what Hasselman, the tribes and the fishing industry were actually up against. The courtroom in Fresno is right in the heart of corporate farming territory. Those business interests, which are politically powerful in California and pretty omnipotent in that particular part of the state, are what Hasselman faced off against. They wanted that Trinity water to ultimately flow through Fresno County into their back pockets–and initially the judge sided with them last week by granting a temporary restraining order on releasing water.

But here’s the real bottom line…Hasselman et al prevailed, and because of that, in the next few weeks one of the biggest chinook salmon runs on record will race up the re-invigorated Trinity/Klamath rivers with a much-better chance of giving life to the next generation.

The case will continue to wind its way through the courts, with important implications for the government’s authority to protect salmon in other years and in other places. Nor are this year’s salmon assured of success. So stay tuned as we follow the fish home.

P.S. Read our press release for quotes from the court and our allies on this great day for Pacific Northwest salmon: http://action.earthjustice.org/site/R?i=DwHxMw48m3ikK_RDBz8MzA

Feds give away fish water to same growers suing over Trinity releases

Post by by Dan Bacher cross-posted from fishsniffer.com. Over 60 members of the Hoopa Valley Tribe rallied in front of the federal courthouse in Fresno on August 21 as U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill held a hearing regarding the temporary restraining order obtained.¬† by Westlands Water District and the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority to block a plan to increase flows on the Trinity River.

They and members of the Klamath Justice Coalition held signs proclaiming, “Westlands Sucks the Trinity Dry,” “Remember the Fish Kill 2002,” “Save the Trinity,” Save the Fish – Release the Dam Water,” and “Un Dam the Klamath.” Wearing bright green shirts stating, “Save the Trinity River,” the Tribal members traced chalk outlines of salmon and people on the pavement showing what would happen to fish and people if the flows aren’t released.

“When the fish are gone, we will be gone too,” explained Dania Rose Colegrove, Klamath Justice Coalition organizer and member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. Continue reading