SMUD Board Completes Withdrawal
From Trinity Litigation
by Dan Bacher
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) board voted to withdraw from the litigation blocking Trinity River restoration on April 3, but it continued to participate in the Supplemental Environmental Impact Study (SEIS) process initiated by the Westlands Water District and SMUD.
Responding to pressure from the Hoopa Valley Tribe, environmentalists, anglers and SMUD ratepayers to completely pull out from all aspects of the litigation, the SMUD Board voted on May 15 to also withdraw from the SEIS process. Board members Linda Davis, Peter Keat, Larry Carr, Genevieve Shiroma, Bill Slaton and Susan Patterson voted for the resolution, while Howard Posner abstained.
Continuing in the SEIS process was very controversial because the tribes, environmentalists and anglers argued that the new environmental study was yet another delaying tactic by Westlands to hold onto its taxpayer-subsidized irrigation water at the expense of Trinity River fisheries -and to effectively scuttle Trinity River restoration.
“I’m very pleased with the reversal of the policy based on a change of heart by the board,” said Susan Patterson, SMUD board president, who introduced the resolution. “The board has had a lot of time to think about it and there were a lot of compelling arguments by the public and the board against remaining in the SEIS. We value the reputation we have carved for being a steward of the environment and being in the Trinity litigation didn’t fit in - and staying in would tarnish our reputation. We couldn’t continue being half in and half out of the lawsuit.”
The resolution directed the General Manager to “cease participation and activities related to the United States Department of Interior’s supplemental impact study on the restoration of the Trinity River fisheries.” The board also supported an amendment stating that the District may continue on the mailing and service list for the SEIS for information purposes.
The Record of Decision that Westlands/SMUD lawsuit opposed was the result of decades of political pressure and legal battles by the tribes, environmentalists and anglers to restore the salmon and steelhead runs on the Trinity River. The ROD, issued by former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt in December 2000, provided 47 percent of the Trinity’s water to the tribes and fisheries and 53 percent to agricultural and hydroelectric users.
Representatives of groups supporting Patterson’s resolution spoke before the board in both the policy meeting earlier that week and in Thursday’s board meeting. Joseph Jernigan, member of the tribal council of the Hoopa Valley tribe, explained the importance of SMUD pulling out of the EIS.
“The tribe has been working 20 years to restore the Trinity,” he stated. “In 1955, the federal government promised to our elders that that not a bucket of water would leave until the needs of fish and wildlife were met. But as a child living on the reservation, I saw the river get smaller and smaller as the water was diverted.”
“We were very thankful when SMUD agreed to withdraw from the lawsuit, but we felt blindsided when we realized that SMUD was still actively involved with the EIS process,” he added. “Westlands has millions to spend on delaying the river’s restoration.”
Of the 34,000 salmon lost last September in the Klamath River fish kill, Jernigan estimated that 70 percent were Trinity fish. The tribes were unable to fish, electing to allow the remaining salmon to go upstream to spawn.
“The SMUD alternative in the EIS process provided for mechanical restoration, but fish need water to live, like people need air. SMUD needs to reaffirm and completely withdraw from the process,” he concluded.
Craig Tucker, outreach director for Friends of the River, said his organization, after celebrating SMUD's withdrawal from the lawsuit, was disappointed that SMUD staff had not withdrawn from commenting on the SEIS process and the reconstruction of two Trinity River bridges. Supporting Patterson's resolution, Tucker urged the board to complete their withdrawal by proactively confronting Westlands and the NCPA, urging them to back off from the litigation, and to pressure the federal government to restore the Trinity.
“Westlands is the Darth Vader of California water policy and SMUD is known for being the good guy, so SMUD has legitimized Westlands’ position by
participating in the SEIS process,” said Tucker.
Others who spoke on behalf of Trinity River restoration included Dave Ford of the Northern California Council Federation of Fly Fishers, Bill Berry of California Trout and Ann Hayden of Environmental Defense.
Prior to the board vote, Genevieve Shiroma supported Patterson’s resolution, arguing that that the board “just can’t go part way” on pulling out of the litigation.
“It’s a matter of taking a clear and sympathetic position towards Trinity River restoration,” said Shiroma. “The Trinity is a unique situation where promises were made decades ago.”
Davis seconded the resolution, and commended members of the public who attended meetings and wrote letters in support of Trinity restoration. “We received the most letters that we’ve ever seen on this issue,” said Davis, “and it showed environmental responsibility on the part of our constituents."
Posner, the one abstaining vote, said he couldn’t vote for the resolution because although he believed that saving the river was more important than saving 40 megawatts of energy, he claimed that the resolution precluded reaching a solution where both river restoration and electrical needs for 40 megawatts could be met.
I commend the SMUD board for doing the right thing by completely extricating itself from the Trinity litigation/SEIS process. Kudos also go to Friends of the Trinity River, California Trout, United Anglers, the Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes, Friends of the River, California Fly Fishers Unlimited, Environmental Defense, the Northern California Council Federation of Fly Fishers, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the many ratepayers who wrote letters encouraging SMUD to stop blocking the restoration of the Trinity.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org