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Farmers, Tribes Have Stake in River Ruling

Environment: Babbitt is expected to decide soon on plan to double Trinity's flow and aid fish. Opponents say the water is needed for irrigation and power generation.


SACRAMENTO — As the clock runs out on the Clinton administration, one of U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's last key decisions is expected to be whether to dramatically increase the flow of Northern California's once-roaring Trinity River.

His choice could pit the interests of farmers and power users against American Indian tribes and a struggling tourism industry. Tribal leaders, environmentalists and tourism promoters are all eager for him to make up his mind before November's presidential election, which they fear could cause delays regardless of the winner.

The proposal would double Trinity River flows to 595,000 acre-feet a year. This could significantly increase fish for the Hoopa and Yurok tribes. Bolstering the river's flow would also enhance its wild beauty, which could draw increasing numbers of white-water river rafters, recreational anglers and other tourists to the state's northwest corner, which has been struggling since the decline of the timber and fishing industries.

The volume of water at stake, however, generates enough electricity to supply 31,000 Sacramento-area households. Replacing it could cost $12.5 million a year, a cost that would be passed on to consumers. It also irrigates 150 square miles of some of the world's richest farmland across the San Joaquin Valley, where many farmers have seen their water supplies dwindle in the last decade.

"Science shows the quantity of water remaining in the Trinity is a big factor in the health of the [fish population]," said David Hayes, deputy Interior secretary. "But water back in the Trinity is water that is no longer in the Central Valley."

Competing for Babbitt's attention are several other key environmental matters, each with its own set of supporters and detractors. He is expected to decide whether to recommend that the Paria Plateau in northern Arizona be declared a national monument, and whether to expand the Craters of the Moon National Monument in southern Idaho. Babbitt also must decide whether to sign off on a final plan to reduce traffic in Yosemite National Park.

Restoring water to the Trinity, which originates in the jagged Trinity Alps and flows west across Trinity County before emptying into the Klamath River, would mark a continuing reversal of a historical decision. In 1962, the river was dammed and much of its flow--at times as much as 90%--was diverted into the Sacramento River to serve farms and cities by irrigating crops and generating power.

But the diversion came at the expense of fish populations, which have declined over the decades. The river's Coho salmon, for example, are listed as threatened.

After more than 15 years of study, the federal government released a plan last October to nearly double the river's flow. Pressure is mounting on Babbitt, who is expected to render a final decision in several months.

In determining what to do about the Trinity, Babbitt is revisiting a decision made in a bygone era when little importance was placed on free-flowing rivers--an attitude that began to shift after the environmental movement of the 1970s, according to Michael Hanemann, a professor in UC Berkeley's Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics.

"What we're seeing today is a part of a change in the importance that people place on keeping water in the river rather than extracting it and putting it to human use," Hanemann said. "It's clear that there's been a real shift."

If Babbitt restores the Trinity to roughly half of its natural flow, it could spell hard times for western San Joaquin Valley farmers who have seen their supplies dwindle as more water is dedicated to fish.

Federal officials contend that Babbitt's decision is not expected to affect water allocations for farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that were laid out in the broad state-federal water plan unveiled in June. But farmers are skeptical.

Many of them who rely on Central Valley Project water to irrigate their crops can expect to receive 65% of the supply they anticipated this year. They make up the shortage by pumping water from the ground, shopping for pricey surplus supplies or both.

Dan Errotabere, a third-generation farmer who grows vegetables and cotton on 1,200 acres near Huron, said uncertainty about water supplies has changed the way banks do business with farmers.

"The question that never used to be asked by the banks that is asked now is, 'What is your alternative supply for water?' " Errotabere said. "It's difficult to loan money to an operation that can't show how it will meet its water needs."

He worries that further reductions will force farmers out of business and perhaps stifle his young son's dreams of following family tradition by becoming a farmer.

"I just hope what we have is sustainable," Errotabere said, as he watched the first of his family's tomato crops being harvested. "I think it would be a terrible legacy for this to turn into fallow land."

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