[env-trinity] Trinity River LA Times May 16 2005
bwl3 at comcast.net
Mon May 16 11:01:28 PDT 2005
A River Rises to Reclaim Its Past
The Trinity has lost water, fish and freedom over the years. A federal
project has let it run wild again.
By Bettina Boxall
Times Staff Writer
May 16, 2005
LEWISTON, Calif. - A series of short siren blasts signaled a climactic
moment in a decades-long battle over the Trinity River, which, like so many
rivers in California, has lost much of its water, its fish and its freedom.
As a gate lifted on the small concrete Lewiston Dam, about an hour's
winding drive west of Redding, water spilled down an apron into the Trinity.
Federal dam managers, who have spent the last 40 years sucking water from
the river and sending most of its flow to the farm fields of the Central
Valley, were letting the Trinity go.
The river ran frothy and aqua-green, knocking down willow trees along its
banks, muscling over its sandy shoulders and roaring under bridges. It was
fast. It was rambunctious. For four days, it was its old self.
The water release, which tapered over the weekend, is key to one of the
most ambitious river restoration efforts in the West, intended to revive the
Trinity's long-suffering salmon and steelhead runs.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the West's preeminent dam master, has
increased flows on other rivers to protect endangered fish. But the agency
says that it has never given back so much water to a single river for
environmental restoration anywhere in the country.
"This is exciting. A lot of people have been working for this for a long
time," Rod Wittler, senior scientist with the Trinity River Restoration
Program, said as he watched the dam gate inch open. "I think of all the
rivers in California, the plan for restoring this one can work. There's a
real chance of success here."
The restoration, ordered by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 2000
but stalled by lawsuits until this year, allows about half the Trinity's
volume to stay in the 130-mile-long river, which cuts through the Trinity
Alps before veering west and joining the Klamath River on its way to the
Up until now, 75% of the Trinity's water - and at times as much as 90% -
has been piped through a mountain tunnel to the Sacramento River, which
carries it south to the Delta and a federal aqueduct that feeds the Central
Babbitt's was the most sweeping order of several issued in the last 25
years to maintain flows for the river's steelhead, chinook and coho salmon
populations, which have plunged to roughly one-fifth of what they were
before the Trinity and Lewiston dams were completed in 1963, capturing the
river's frigid headwaters.
"It was nothing to catch 100 fish if you left your net in. Today you're
lucky if you catch 10," said LeRoy Jackson, a council member of the Hoopa
Valley Indian Tribe, one of the driving forces behind the river's
The dams stopped spring flooding that scoured sand from the river's bottom,
washed young trees and bushes out of the channel, and kept the water cold.
The riverbed grew narrower, its edges choked with growth. Fish spawning beds
were buried in sand; the shallow back pools in which juvenile salmon could
rest and feed disappeared. Trapped behind the dams, gravel was no longer
washed downriver to replenish spawning beds.
By letting the Trinity keep more of its water, and releasing it in ways
that mimic nature's cycle of high spring flows, scientists hope to restore
conditions that will help the fish spawn and grow healthy and plump for
their journey downriver to the sea.
"We're basing it on the premise that if we build the habitat, the fish will
find it," said Nina Hemphill, a restoration program fisheries biologist.
It was with a bit of glee that her colleague Wittler watched a tall tree
sway as the rising river threatened to topple it. "The whole idea is to
start getting these guys out of here," he said.
Using heavy equipment, restoration workers are also going to clear
vegetation from 16 miles of the river channel to give the Trinity more room
to roam and create fish-friendly shallow pools.
The program is spending $6 million in federal funds building higher bridges
to replace a series of small private spans that would be washed out with the
higher flows. The new bridges will be turned over to the private landowners
who maintained the old ones.
The Bureau of Reclamation has bought a house downriver from Lewiston that
sits in the Trinity's path and will probably help move some others.
"I hope they accomplish what they're trying to accomplish," said the
house's owner, Donald Tullis, who is moving into town. On his porch, friends
stood sipping beer as the swelling river lapped at the foundations and made
an island of a birdbath on Tullis' submerged lawn.
For the most part, people in this sparsely populated, richly wooded stretch
of Northern California are happy about the dam releases, said Howard
Freeman, chairman of the Trinity County Board of Supervisors. "It's been no
secret we need water in the river to keep it healthy. That's been the mantra
for the last 30 years."
Freeman, his head shaved and three rings dangling from his ears, recalled a
local high school conservation teacher who bemoaned the Trinity's dammed
state back in the 1970s. High school students held protests as the band
played funeral marches for the river.
So few steelhead and coho returned to spawn that "we thought about giving
them names," remembered Jim Smith, an 80-year-old former county supervisor
who fished the Trinity as a youth.
A local congressman campaigned for restoration money, and in 1981, the
secretary of the Interior ordered Reclamation to nearly triple the Trinity's
flows in all but dry years. He also ordered a study on the amount of water
needed for the river to rebound. Another 18 years passed before the report
was completed, during which time Congress and another Interior secretary
mandated that the higher flows be maintained.
Based on the study, Babbitt signed a decision five years ago ordering still
higher flows, as well as a broad restoration effort. Under the decision, the
amount of water released into the river will vary according to how wet or
dry the year is. But on average, water exports from the Trinity will drop
28%, reducing reclamation's total water deliveries to the Central Valley by
1% to 4%.
Northern California hydropower producers and Central Valley irrigators sued
to block Babbitt's order. Last November, a federal appeals court upheld the
restoration plan, clearing the way for the program's launch.
A couple hours' drive downriver from Lewiston, on the Hoopa reservation,
tribal leaders aren't yet ready to claim victory. The Interior Department
should be spending more, they say, to clear vegetation and restore the river
channel to its pre-dam condition.
The Hupa people have lived on the banks of the Trinity for thousands of
years. When the salmon all but disappeared, so did a main staple of the
Hoopa tribe's diet and a cornerstone of tribal culture.
"It's not about a few more fish," said tribal Chairman Clifford Lyle
"It's about a quality of life, a way of life."
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