Press "Enter" to skip to content

California’s ‘Water Donor Counties’

The Humboldt and Trinity County boards of supervisors have issued a new trickle of outrage concerning their status as water vassals of Central Valley agribusiness. In letters this past January to Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, CC'd to local US Rep. Jared Huffman, each set of officials requested full participation in deliberations regarding Congressional drought legislation to address, as the TrinCo version put it, “the impacts caused by massive export of Trinity Basin water supplies.”

Both groups of supes described their jurisdictions as “a water donor county.” In other words, a completely different area of the state is reaping enormous financial gain from the expropriation of their watersheds. “[S]ince 1964 Trinity County has contributed more than 46 million acre-feet from the Trinity Basin to the Central Valley [emphasis in original],” reads the Trinity County version. “Simply put, to the Central Valley Project and other water recipients like the San Luis Unit (SLU), we are a water donor county.”

The San Luis Unit refers to Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the United States. Owing to the miracle of modern hydrologic engineering, the US Bureau of Reclamation has exported as much as 90% of the Trinity River's annual flow to the Central Valley since the completion of Trinity Dam — at the time of its construction, the world's highest earthen dam — in 1962. The arrangement has turned the arid western San Joaquin Valley, located roughly 500 miles away, into a bountiful — and profitable — farming region.

Trinity Dam

The water exports have had dire consequences, however, for the Klamath and Trinity fish populations and the people who depend on them. Largely owing to the long struggle by Yurok, Hoopa, and other Klamath basin indigenous people to maintain federally acknowledged fishing rights, the Klamath-Trinity is still home to the largest population of wild salmon of any river system in California. It is also home to one of the healthiest populations of steelhead trout in the Lower 48 and the world’s most abundant green sturgeon population, among various other superlatives.

With California entering the fourth year of drought, long-time observers are warning of even more dire consequences if the federal government continues to pump its customary quantity of the rivers’ water “over the hill.”

“What the Trinity and Klamath are facing is a catastrophe of epic proportions,” said Tom Stokely, a resident of Mt. Shasta and a former Trinity County natural resources planner who is now a policy analyst for the conservation group California Water Impact Network.

The problem is straightforward: not enough cold water for fish. In 2002, the lower Klamath River was the site of the largest recorded fish die-off since Europeans first stepped foot on the continent. At least 65,000 adult Chinook salmon died due to low summer flows caused by bureau water diversions and warm temperatures.

Klamath Fish Kill, 2002
Klamath Fish Kill, 2002

Last August, as temperatures in the lower Klamath soared into the 70s, tribal biologists began to discover fish carcasses washed up on shore near the river’s confluence with the Trinity. More than two hundred tribal members responded by rallying at the Bureau of Reclamation office in Sacramento to demand that the agency release cold water stored either in Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake or at Trinity Reservoir.

The HumCo counterparts use the more pointed language of the two. “The regulatory and programmatic 'taking' of [Trinity River] water in the form of diversions has significantly impacted the North Coast economy, commercial and sport fishing industry, harmed the economic, social and cultural values for three local Native American Tribes, and shuttered local small coastal towns,” reads the letter signed by County Supervisor Mark Lovelace. “The people of the North Coast experience the pain of those diversions every day — and have since 1964.”

The TrinCo and HumCo supes are rightfully concerned that drought legislation being shepherded by perennially big business-friendly US Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other Congressional reps to benefit San Joaquin Valley farmers could deal a huge blow to the river's wildlife and the people who depend on it for their livelihoods. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) has announced that a bi-partisan bill that would increase “operational flexibility” for federal water projects in California, thereby further increasing water deliveries to agribusiness, will soon be unveiled.

The situation for North Coast people, fish, and other critters would quickly go from disastrous to even more disastrous. Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled drought legislation last week that does virtually nothing to address the water demands of agribusiness, which uses 80% of California's developed water supply.

As part of the 1955 legislation that mandated Trinity Reservoir's construction, Humboldt County was promised 50,000 acre feet annually from the Trinity Reservoir. The Bureau of Reclamation has never provided HumCo with this comparatively modest allocation, which represents a mere eight percent of what the feds shipped to the Central Valley last year (595,000 acre feet). And that's a big part of the county supes' beef with the federal government's water management.

When it comes to “water donor” counties in California, few have proved more munificent than the county immediately to Humboldt's south. The Humboldt County Supervisors have protested for years regarding the federal government's failure to abide by the 50,000 acre foot water agreement. Meanwhile, Mendo's official representatives have permitted Sonoma County to help themselves to most of the upper Russian River's water at no cost ever since Lake Mendocino was constructed in the late-'50s. (The late Joe Scaramella, uncle of this publication's managing editor, was the only supervisor to vote against this short-sighted arrangement). Sonoma County also gets free rein to the waters of upper Dry Creek, which rises in southern Mendo and is trapped by Warm Springs Dam west of Healdsburg.

Lake Sonoma
Lake Sonoma (behind Warm Springs Dam)

Sonoma County sells the water to Marin County, particularly the dry towns of Northern Marin, for pure profit, the “product” costing nothing more than the pipes and valves to shunt it across the Petaluma Gap to Novato. The Sonoma County water business (agency), overseen by Sonoma County supervisors, is that rare public bureaucracy that turns hefty annual profits.

When Supervisor John Pinches attempted to simply bring up the subject of the water diversion for discussion, his wine-fueled Mendo colleagues — there’s no significant wine industry in Humboldt or Trinity counties — nixed it 4-1.

As with the dams in the Klamath River system, the existence of the dams in Mendocino County that enable this arrangement have wrought a huge toll both on the fish and the humans who depend on them. Whereas the spring-run chinook of the Klamath-Trinity used to travel exclusively to the cold-water tributaries above the dams, now they must make do as they can with the warmer waters of the mainstem and the tributaries in the lower parts of the river. On the Eel River, the existence of Scott Dam, behind which forms Lake Pillsbury, blocks the migration of salmon and trout to their best spawning grounds.

In 2017, a federal commission will begin reviewing an application by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to re-license its Potter Valley Project, which includes the mile-long tunnel that diverts Eel water to the Russian River's east branch. It's a safe bet Mendo's supervisors will not use the relicensing process to try to leverage a new arrangement.

Of course, the Russian River's abundant water supply is supplemented by the Eel River diversion, and the mainstem Eel's “county of origin” is actually Mendo's even-more-impoverished eastern neighbor, the County of Lake. The Eel region has never been compensated for its diverted water.

The HumCo and TrinCo supervisors invoked restitution in their recent missives to California's congressional delegation. When it comes to restorative justice, though, the greatest claim lies with the original people of the area: the indigenous groups who still depend on these river's fish for their cultural survival.

Hoopa Valley tribal member Dania Colegrove, also a member of a grassroots organization called the Klamath Justice Coalition, explained to me the central role that the Klamath’s fisheries continue to play in her culture.

“On Sunday, I went to the mouth of the Klamath River at the ocean and got eel,” she said. “The week before that, we fished for steelhead. Two days ago, my neighbor brought my mom sturgeon. The river is our grocery store, basically, and without it, we cease to exist as people.”

A federal court ruled in 1979 that the tribes are “entitled to as much water on the Reservation lands as they need to protect their hunting and fishing rights,” with a priority date of “time immemorial.” According to Colegrove, though, it’s inevitable that the Klamath basin indigenous people will have to continue protesting if their fish are to survive. “It’s going to be a fight from now on,” she said.

(The Humboldt and Trinity County Letters referred to above can be found on the AVA website. Contact Will Parrish at

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.