SMUD Board Withdraws From Trinity Lawsuit!

by Dan Bacher

Dissident Voice

April 14, 2003


The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) Board voted 7-0 in a closed session on Thursday, April 3 to end its participation in the Westlands Water District lawsuit against Trinity River restoration.


This is a great victory for the Hoopa and Yurok tribes, anglers, environmentalists and SMUD ratepayers, who flooded the SMUD offices with hundreds of letters asking SMUD to pull out of the controversial litigation that blocked the historic “Record of Decision” by Bruce Babbitt in December 2000.


The board’s decision was apparently prompted by a letter from 12 environmental groups sent to SMUD on Thursday that accused SMUD ‘s legal position as being “inconsistent with its mission to meet electricity needs ‘in an environmentally responsible manner.’” On Wednesday, the Environmental Council of Sacramento also had voted unanimously to request SMUD to drop out of the litigation.


“I’m very happy that the board decided to pull out of the Trinity litigation,” said Susan Patterson, president of the SMUD Board of Directors, who was the lone vote against SMUD remaining in the lawsuit in the board’s August meeting. “I believe that this was the right thing to do. I’m getting a sense that the board wanted to move onto other things.


“We got a lot of letters, some very passionate, asking for SMUD to withdraw from the lawsuit,” she emphasized.


The Hoopa Tribes’s filing of an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court on Monday, March 31, for an injunction and stay in the court order by Judge Oliver Wanger paved the way for the decision to pull out. Patterson asked the SMUD General Counsel, Arlen Orchard to provide the board the option of withdrawing from the appeal. She argued that SMUD had achieved its chief goal - getting the federal government to redo an environmental study (EIS) that would address the impacts of restoration - and the other board members agreed.


“SMUD joined this litigation two years ago in an effort to get the federal government to take a broader look at scientifically sound methods for restoring the fisheries on the Trinity River,” SMUD said in a press release on April 4. “Given a recent trial ruling from Judge Oliver Wanger, the Board is now satisfied that SMUD has accomplished what it set out to do and that the District’s participation in the appeals of the judge’s rulings in this lawsuit is no longer necessary.”


Environmental and fishery groups and the Yurok and Hoopa Tribes were  surprised - and greatly encouraged  - by the decision.


“The SMUD Board, by voting to withdraw, have shown true leadership and concern for fulfilling their mission of meeting electricity needs ‘in an environmentally responsible manner while providing value to the community,’” said Byron Leydecker of Friends of the Trinity River and California Trout. “This is an enormous victory for our decades-long battle to restore the Trinity River to its potential.”


Clifford Lyle Marshall, chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, said the tribe was “elated and ecstatic” about the decision.


“SMUD has shown that they have a conscience,” said Marshall. “It’s a great move on SMUD’s part. It shows that the people of northern California care about their quality of life, preserving the environment and maintaining the wild and scenic places like the Trinity because they are of immeasurable value. When water is going down a beautiful river like the Trinity, how can you place an economic value on it?”


Now that SMUD is out of the litigation, Marshall said the Tribe is working with Congressman Mike Thompson and Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein to pass federal legislation that would guarantee minimum flows and restore the fisheries of the Trinity River.


Bruce Babbit’s Record of Decision on the Trinity River  was a “fair compromise” that allocates 53 percent of Trinity River water to agricultural and hydroelectric users and 47 percent  for the benefit of the river and fisheries, according to Marshall. SMUD decided to join the lawsuit blocking the ROD when the utility was in the midst of an energy crisis and  trying to maintain every source of power generation it could.


However, participation in the lawsuit incurred the wrath of environmentalists, fisheries groups and the tribes, since it halted  badly needed efforts to restore the river’s salmon and steelhead, which had declined to only 12 percent of historical levels. The court order blocking the release of cold water from Trinity Dam could have alleviated the die off of over 33,000 salmon on the lower Klamath last September, so SMUD’s participation in the legal battle contributed to the fish kill.


Opponents of the lawsuit argued that the price of river restoration was worth the small cost to SMUD customers. SMUD would lose 40 megawatts, enough power  for about 40,000 homes, if the ROD was implemented,  according to Ruthie Breech, Outreach Coordinator for Friends of the River. This would translate to an average of $2.00 per year per customer - a tiny cost to pay for the restoration of what was once one of the West’s top steelhead and salmon fisheries.


Judge Wanger’s ruling in December 2002 established a deadline of July 2004 for the Department of Interior to complete its supplemental environmental impact study. Now that SMUD has withdrawn from the litigation, activists are hoping that another party to the lawsuit, the NCPA (Northern California Power Association), will pull out of the legal battle. This would further isolate Westlands Water District - and send a powerful message to Judge Wanger that the people of northern California want the Trinity River restored!


Kudos to all of those who sent letters, via “snail mail” and email, to the SMUD Board. A special thanks go to Richard and Deborah Alves, Fish Sniffer Webmasters, who put up an action alert on www.fishsniffer.com to generate many of the letters that SMUD received prior to dropping out of the litigation.


Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical songwriter from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: danielbacher@hotmail.com


* See earlier article: “It’s Time For SMUD To Stop Blocking Trinity Restoration



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