Fishermen threaten to sue agency over Trinity River diversions

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By Sonia Waraich | Times-Standard (Eureka)

A Trump-era decision has further imperiled endangered fish species in the Trinity River, and commercial fishermen and local tribes are demanding the federal government take action.

This week, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and its sister organization Institute for Fisheries Research sent the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation a 60-day notice of their intention to sue the federal agency for violating the Endangered Species Act. The amount of water the bureau is diverting from the Trinity River to the Central Valley Project has decimated the river’s salmon populations and the fishermen are demanding a new biological opinion on the conservation methods and measures that should be required to protect them.

“There hasn’t been an updated biological opinion on the Trinity River since the year 2000,” Tom Stokely, a consultant to the federation who has been working on the Trinity River for decades, told The Times-Standard. “When they did the last biological opinion, they did not anticipate the take of coho salmon from warm water.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, it’s illegal to “take” an endangered species, which ranges from harming and harassing to trapping and killing them. The law also requires agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to prepare a biological opinion detailing how a federal agency’s actions could jeopardize the habitat or existence of an endangered species, along with conservation methods to help those species recover.

In the case of the fish in the Trinity River, the bureau is required to maintain a temperature of 56 degrees at specific locations along the river during the salmon spawning periods starting in mid-September. Last year, the water diversions resulted in harm to the species by allowing lethal temperatures in the Trinity River Hatchery that killed up to 75% of the coho salmon eggs.

Conditions aren’t expected to improve this fall, Stokely said. The water temperature at Lewiston Dam is projected to be 58.6 degrees in October, which is 2.5 degrees warmer than it’s supposed to be 40 miles downstream.

“So we expect very significant mortality of spring Chinook salmon, fall Chinook salmon as well as coho,” Stokely said.

The only thing that might save the fish this year is the bureau’s decision to bring chillers to the Trinity River Hatchery for the coho salmon eggs, but Stokely said they don’t have chillers for the spring or fall Chinook salmon.

Much of this is the result of a 2019 biological opinion that assessed the impact to species across the footprint of the Central Valley Project — a network of dams, reservoirs, canals and other infrastructure that provides hydroelectricity and supplies water to the likes of Central Valley farmers and municipal customers across 29 counties, among other things — without factoring in impacts to the Trinity River.

That opinion had the net effect of taking more water out of the Trinity River and leaving it without any protections.

“Now we’re facing this crisis because under the Trump biological opinion, the cold water will be gone this fall and the salmon will experience very lethal temperatures during spawning,” Stokely said.

A joint March letter from the Yurok Tribe and Hoopa Valley Tribe to the bureau and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was attached to the notice of intent. It, too, calls for a separate biological opinion focused specifically on the impacts to the Trinity River, the health of which is significant in maintaining their ways of life.

“The pending re-consultation on operations of the (Trinity River Division) must remain separate and be completed prior to that of the larger (Central Valley Project),” the letter states. “This will ensure that environmental impacts of reservoir management and water quality and quantity of river releases in the Trinity River Basin can be considered independent of the impacts in the Sacramento River.”

The letter also points out that the 1955 Trinity River Act that allowed for the construction and operation of the Trinity River Division of the Central Valley Project requires appropriate measures be taken to preserve fish and wildlife species in the Trinity before allowing diversions.

It lays out emergency measures, like ceasing diversions, the bureau should take to preserve the fish in the Trinity, which are “vital to meet the cultural, ceremonial, subsistence and economic needs of the Hoopa Valley and Yurok Tribes.”

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