There are few victories sweeter and more dramatic than the one just wrested by Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman and his tribal allies in a Fresno, California courtroom this week. They prevented a corporate grab of water needed by an entire run of chinook salmon for their spawning run up the Klamath/Trinity rivers system.
The drama—and believe me, it was a mix of theater, unexpected turnarounds and life-or-death arguments—climaxed late yesterday when a judge agreed that these salmon need the water more than the mega-farms that sought it as a hedge against next year’s bottom line.
Dozens of Native America tribal members demonstrated outside the courtroom as U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence O’Neill heard the warning of what happened 12 years ago during a drought year like this on that same river system. That year, a water grab authorized by the Bush administration left as many as 70,000 salmon dead in the rivers, with the next generation rotting in their bellies:
Years later, those rivers were empty of salmon, as were the larders of tribes along the river, and the future of the commercial/recreational fishing industry that depends on healthy salmon runs. The collapse of the fishery was so severe that California and Oregon declared formal states of emergency, and Congress appropriated $60 million in disaster relief for fishermen.
The spectre of the 2002 disaster and scientific testimony that showed it could happen again this year convinced Judge O’Neill to let the Trinity River flow into its natural bed, rather than allow its diversion hundreds of miles south to Central Valley mega-farms.
If it sounds like a no-brainer, consider what Hasselman, the tribes and the fishing industry were actually up against. The courtroom in Fresno is right in the heart of corporate farming territory. Those business interests, which are politically powerful in California and pretty omnipotent in that particular part of the state, are what Hasselman faced off against. They wanted that Trinity water to ultimately flow through Fresno County into their back pockets—and initially the judge sided with them last week by granting a temporary restraining order on releasing water.
But here’s the real bottom line … Hasselman et al prevailed, and because of that, in the next few weeks one of the biggest chinook salmon runs on record will race up the re-invigorated Trinity/Klamath rivers with a much-better chance of giving life to the next generation.
The case will continue to wind its way through the courts, with important implications for the government’s authority to protect salmon in other years and in other places. Nor are this year’s salmon assured of success. So stay tuned as we follow the fish home.