[env-trinity] Editorial: Trinity flood is a rare nod to river that was. Redding Record Searchlight

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Mon May 9 14:27:12 PDT 2011

Editorial: Trinity flood is rare nod to river that was


It seems like just yesterday that an acute California drought was forcing emergency water-saving measures, idling farmland, and slapping surcharges on utility bills. Formally, Gov. Jerry Brown only declared that drought over at the end of March.

Well, when it rains it indeed pours down a real gully-washer. Northern California has roughly double its normal snowpack. The reservoirs are full. And the Trinity River is surging with the largest spring flood in a generation.

The construction of Trinity Dam and diversion of its water reduced the Trinity to a parched trickle until the Interior Department released its restoration plan in 2000. Since then, this is the first "extremely wet" year, bringing flows not seen in decades.

The rush of water – topping 11,000 cubic feet per second, for a few brief days – is as much as 20 times the summertime flow that casual rafters might normally encounter. For perspective, the modest mountain river this week is running higher than the normally far larger Sacramento through Redding.

The point of letting all that water flow isn't to display our sudden aquatic abundance or even, as on the Sacramento earlier this year, an emergency reservoir release to make room for later potential floods.

Instead, it's a carefully controlled replica of the lost natural cycle of the river, designed to move the gravel that is essential for spawning fish, nourish streamside plants, and re-create something resembling wild channels.

In a sense, rivers are living systems, and to thrive they need floods just as humans need exercise. Otherwise, they're just glorified drainage ditches.

As part of the Central Valley Project, for decades as much as 90 percent of the Trinity's flows were slurped across the divide into the Sacramento Valley, where the water irrigated crops and watered lawns hundreds of miles to the south. The river's new balance has its costs: The lost water was a sharp blow during the drought, and the lower diversions have curbed hydroelectric generation.

But we're still putting the Trinity River to use irrigating farms and lighting our homes. We're just doing so with a sense of proportion, leaving a share for nature.

As long as the dams stand — and they're essential to modern life in California — the Trinity will never be truly wild. But this week's controlled flood is a nod to the river that was.

It's a refreshing change to have the water to spare, but it's downright inspiring to know the Trinity is being given new life.

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