Native Americans across the nation are restoring land and waterways, but they face a dominant culture whose agencies are often charged with simultaneously protecting and exploiting nature.

By Tim Holt, Pacific News Service


DUNSMUIR, Calif. – Aug. 9, 2005 – They are gradually emerging from the deep shadows of the dominant culture. Across the Great Plains, Indians are bringing back the buffalo, the wild mustang and the wolf. In my own region of Northern California the 2,200-member Hoopa tribe is making headway in their effort to restore a river and a fishery that had sustained them for 10,000 years.

The Indians bring a kind of practical environmentalism to the ongoing debate over our relationship to the land and its resources. It is an environmentalism tied to a particular place, one that’s been their home for thousands of years. They have learned to live within the limits of its resources.

But native peoples must contend with powerful, rapacious forces in the larger society that view rivers as irrigation ditches, and water as nothing more than a commodity to be bought and sold.

The Hoopas and a neighboring tribe, the Yuroks, struggled for 40 years to restore their river after it was drained by dams and diversions. The farmers of the San Joaquin Valley, 300 miles to the south, began siphoning water from the Trinity after they’d depleted their groundwater and tapped out the rivers in their own region.

Last May, after a protracted legal struggle with those farmers, the Hoopas finally saw flows restored to their decimated river — at a level only about half the Trinity’s historic flows but sufficient to bring salmon populations back to sustainable levels, according to government biologists.

But even this minimal restoration is far from assured. The Hoopas’ legal victory didn’t put an end to the mentality that drained their river in the first place. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that built the Trinity’s dams and diversions, recently promised its water customers to the south an additional million acre-feet of water over the next 20 years, a 15 percent increase over the current level of deliveries.

To achieve this, the Bureau will need to tap more deeply into the Trinity’s two reservoirs. In dry years, the river’s drained reservoirs won’t be able to provide the cool water required for spawning salmon and steelhead, so any gains in the fishery made in previous years could easily be wiped out.

To give itself more flexibility, the Bureau has dropped strict guidelines that previously regulated flows from Northern California dams to protect salmon. This move has raised cries of alarm from state officials who fear efforts to restore endangered fish will be jeopardized, not only in the Trinity but in the state’s main river system, the Sacramento.

The Bureau currently finds itself on both sides of this issue. On the one hand, it is charged with carrying out the physical restoration of the Trinity, reshaping it from the straight channel of the post-dam era to a meandering stream with the quiet side pools necessary for spawning and nurturing young salmon. Ironically, the benefits from this painstaking work are now jeopardized by this same Bureau’s plans to ship more water down south. What we are witnessing here is a full-blown case of bureaucratic schizophrenia, an agency trying to practice resource stewardship and resource exploitation at the same time, in the same river.

And it gets even crazier. Some of the Bureau’s water customers down south won’t even be able to use the additional water the Bureau plans to ship them. In part this is due to reduced planting because of falling commodity prices. There are other problems: The Bureau’s biggest agricultural customer, the San Joaquin valley’s sprawling Westlands Water District, has started reducing its planted acreage due to chronically poor drainage and the accumulation of toxic chemicals and salt in its soils.

But the additional water the Bureau’s customers are getting definitely won’t go to waste. The extra, taxpayer-subsidized water can be sold in the increasingly lucrative open market, where agricultural districts can get at least double what they pay the federal government for it.

It took the Hoopas and their allies 40 years to halt the draining of their river and begin the restoration of its fishery. But the system that drained the river in the first place, the system hijacked long ago by corporate farming interests, remains firmly in place, poised to exploit the increasingly valuable commodity it receives at taxpayer expense. From that bottom-line perspective, the use of water to grow crops is just one more “option,” and its use to improve the health of rivers and their fisheries makes no sense at all.


PNS contributor Tim Holt is an environmental writer living in the Mt. Shasta region of Northern California. He is author of “Songs of the Simple Life,” a collection of essays.

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