Hupa Indians battle to reclaim Trinity River

- Tim Holt
Sunday, August 22, 2004

The Hupa Indians of Northern California are a tenacious people. In the mid-19th century, when the U.S. Army tried to drive them out of their villages along the Trinity River, the Hupas simply waited them out, camping in nearby hills until the soldiers gave up and left.

One hundred years later, the government has started draining their river, damming it and diverting most of its water through mountain tunnels to farmlands to the south.

For the past 40 years, the Hupas have struggled in the courts and the halls of Congress to bring their river and its decimated fishery back to life.

Up until now, this has involved a lopsided battle between the impoverished 2,500-member Indian tribe and Westlands, the largest irrigation district in the United States, one whose farmers grow roughly $1 billion worth of crops every year.

But the balance of power is beginning to tilt in favor of the Indians -- a seismic shift in California water politics that has been a couple of decades in the making.

Last month, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered the permanent restoration of nearly half the Trinity's historic flows.

The increased flows, which will take effect this fall, are part of a broader Trinity restoration program launched four years earlier by then- Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. It had been blocked until now by a lawsuit filed by the Westlands Water District, representing the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley.

The judges' decision bodes well not only for the Hupas and their river but for the cause of restoring ravaged watersheds throughout the West. The decision, stripped down to its essentials, says that minimum standards for the health of a river take precedence over the demands of water consumers.

The Hupas are looking out for their own interests, to be sure, but with their growing clout, they're adding an important new perspective to the debate over California's water supplies. They view their river as a life-sustaining force, one to be treasured and protected, not commoditized and drained.

The San Joaquin Valley farmers, by contrast, began siphoning off the Trinity only after they'd depleted their groundwater and tapped out the rivers in their region.

In their view, a river that flows to the sea is a waste of water. In the Indians' view, a river that flows naturally to the sea produces a healthy fishery. For all but 40 of the past 10,000 years, that has been the basic tenet of their survival.

The next big task facing the Hupas is the physical restoration of their river, whose configuration was dramatically transformed by four decades of minimum flows.

Heavy equipment will be needed to remove brush and sediment that filled up the old river's side pools. These quiet pools are crucial to the rearing of juvenile fish. Also, several bridges built during the low-flow era will need to be raised.

The seeds of the Hupas' victory were planted in the 1980s, when they began hiring some well-connected and highly respected advocates, including Seattle attorney Tom Schlosser, who specializes in tribal law, and Washington, D.C., lobbyist Joe Membrino, who helped shepherd through a series of laws that put Congress on record in support of the Trinity's restoration.

That, and countless studies by federal biologists, led to Babbitt's order to dramatically increase the river's flows to 47 percent of their historic levels -- the minimum needed, the studies showed, to increase fish populations to sustainable levels.

The environmentalism of the Hupas, like that of West Coast commercial fishermen who fight for clean, free-flowing streams, grows out of their need to protect their livelihood and their way of life.

But the Hupas' commitment goes even deeper than the calloused-hand environmentalism of the fishermen: The salmon the Hupas fight for is not only their staff of life but a centerpiece of their culture, one that involves elaborate ceremonies celebrating their return to the Trinity each year.

Native Americans' deep reverence for the natural world has given them a mythical, iconic status within the environmental movement. But in the real world, they often live in the shadows, struggling with poverty and alcoholism.

The Hupas have tied their future to the natural resources of their region -- they're too far off the beaten track to capitalize on the casino craze sweeping other reservations.

Theirs is an important contribution to the public debate over California's increasingly scarce supplies of fresh water. They're bringing a healthy dose of sanity to a society that sometimes seems hell-bent on exhausting what we have left.

Tim Holt is an environmental writer and the author of "Songs of the Simple Life."

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