Trinity County Urges Interior Secretary to Terminate Trump-Era Water Contract with Westlands

By Dan Bacher | 

Northern California’s Trinity County, emerging victorious from a California Appeals Court ruling after a four-year battle against an attempted water grab by the politically powerful Westlands Water District, has asked Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to rescind the Trump-era water contract.

In response, the Hoopa Valley Tribe in a press statement praised the County for their action. “We applaud Trinity County’s unwavering support for the rule of law and the Trinity  Basin’s environment,” said Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Joe Davis.  

Westlands, located on drainage-impaired land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, has been dubbed the “Darth Vader of California Water Politics” by its opponents for its legal, legislative and administration attacks on fish restoration efforts on the Trinity River, a major tributary of the Klamath River, and the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems for decades.

In his November 8 letter to Secretary Haaland, Trent Tuthill, Trinity County Administrative Officer, did not mince words.

He said a million acre-feet federal water contract between the Trump  Administration and Westlands “is materially incomplete, has not been  validated and is not binding on Interior. Therefore, Trinity County asks for a rescission of  the subject contract.”  

“Trinity County and its allies, including San Joaquin County and numerous non governmental organizations, proved to the court that the Trump Administration’s contract  with Westlands left out terms required by federal and state law to restore fisheries and  recoup the costs from Westlands and other federal water contractors,” the Tribe stated.

“In the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA), Congress concluded that while the  federal Central Valley Project had produced enormous wealth for industrial farms, among  others, it also caused widespread environmental damage, including decimation of fish and wildlife resources vital to Trinity County’s economy and tribal property rights in the  Trinity River basin that the United States holds in trust,” the Tribe wrote.  

The CVPIA required the Secretary to restore fish and wildlife both in the Trinity River  and throughout the Central Valley. Significantly, the law required federal CVP  contractors--not the public--to pay for restoration as a cost of their doing business, the Tribe noted.  

“Nonetheless, the Trump Administration’s contract deliberately omitted restoration  requirements and zeroed out more than $340 million in restoration costs owed by  Westlands and other contractors,” said Vice Chairman Everett Colegrove.  

“Not only that, but we have also found federal public records that identify an additional  $147 million in uncollected restoration costs,” said Hoopa Fisheries Director, Michael  Orcutt.  

“Trinity County’s victory belongs to all who care about environmental justice, tribal  rights, and fiscal responsibility,” said Council Member Daniel Jordan.

Westlands, located in Fresno and Kings counties, is the nation’s largest agricultural water district. 

In 2022, Westlands growers grew an array of crops. The largest crop was water-intensive almonds, with a total of 94,826 acres. The second largest crop was pistachios, with a total of 79,199 acres. The total acreage was 563,556, including 223,736 acres fallowed. 

Background: CA Appeals Court refused to validate ‘repayment’ contract  

On Monday, August 7, the California Court of Appeal issued a landmark ruling affirming a Fresno County Superior Court Judgment refusing to validate a proposed “repayment” contract between Westlands Water District and the United States Bureau of Reclamation, according to a press release from a coalition of groups and attorney Stephan Volker.

This contract was for the purchase and delivery of up to 1.15 million acre-feet per year, in perpetuity and for a highly discounted price, from the Central Valley Project (“CVP”).

The Court’s 44-page ruling holds that Westlands’ draft contract was “materially deficient in its failure to specify Westlands’ financial obligations under the anticipated contract.”  

In rejecting Westlands’ requested validation, the Court agreed with arguments advanced by three groups of public interest opponents, including the North Coast Rivers Alliance, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, and the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association.  

They contended that Westlands had “failed to comply with both procedural and substantive laws in approving an incomplete draft contract that sidestepped required public notice, informed agency review and careful environmental analysis.”

Winter-run Chinook salmon, spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, green sturgeon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt and other iconic California fish species have been pushed to the edge of extinction by decades of massive water diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta by the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. 

Westlands receives 100 percent water allocation this year as salmon closure continues

As Westlands fights a legal campaign to evade payment of at least $100 million in environmental restoration and other costs, all recreational and commercial fishing on the ocean in all of California and most of Oregon is closed, due to the collapse of Sacramento River and Klamath/Trinity River fall-run Chinook salmon populations spurred by poor water and fishery management by the state and federal governments, according to salmon advocates.

Recreational salmon fishing on the Sacramento and Klamath rivers is closed and tribal fishing for salmon on the Hoopa Valley Reservation on the Trinity River and the Yurok Reservation on the Klamath River is severely restricted this year. The total tribal allocation for Klamath River fall-run Chinook salmon on the Klamath River system is 1872 adult fish this year, according to NOAA Fisheries:

The Yurok Tribe is allocated 80 percent of the salmon, while the Hoopa Valley Tribe is allocated 20 percent of the fish. That doesn’t make for many fish when you consider that there are 6,357 enrolled members of the Yurok Tribe, the largest Tribe in California, and 3,167 enrolled members of the Hoopa Valley Tribe.

At the same time that tribal, recreational and commercial fishing communities suffer tremendously from the salmon closure, it is noteworthy that Reclamation this spring increased the Central Valley Project water allocation to 100 percent for contractors like Westlands Water District (Westlands) for the first time since 2017.  

“We are exceedingly grateful to Reclamation, and its dedicated and hard-working staff, for the increased water allocation,” said Jose Gutierrez, Westlands’ interim general manager, in a statement in response to the announcement by Reclamation on April 20. “Following two years of 0% allocations, this announcement will provide much needed water to support the District’s communities, family-owned farms, and hard-working families in the San Joaquin Valley. This water supply will assist growers in Westlands with putting the land to work to grow the food that feeds the world.”

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