Roiling on the river

SMUD’s stance on damming the Trinity River could save ratepayers a few bucks—and cost SMUD its “green” reputation

Traditional fishing: Damming the Trinity in 1963 destroyed an ecosystem, and a Native American way of life.

Traditional fishing: Damming the Trinity in 1963 destroyed an ecosystem, and a Native American way of life.

When Bill Berry was a boy, he and his brothers and father spent a lot of time tromping around the Trinity River in the far northern part of the state, camping and fishing for trout in the summer, and then moving downstream in the winter to fish for steelhead salmon. That was in the late 1940s and early ’50s, when the Trinity was a wild river.

“Those are damn good memories,” said Berry.

And that was before the federal government built the dam that submerged their old campsites and diverted most of the Trinity River flows to the American River, to irrigate thirsty Central Valley farms and to provide cheap electricity for the state’s booming population.

As sad as Berry and his family were to see their stomping grounds on the Upper Trinity disappear, they believed the officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the state Legislature, when assurances were given to citizens that no harm would come to the river’s fish and wildlife.

“Those words turned out to be just good words,” Berry, who settled in Carmichael in the 1960s, now recalls.

As is now well known, some 90 percent of the river flow was diverted to the Central Valley, and fish runs dropped precipitously as the river struggled along in a state of perpetual drought for some four decades following the dam project.

Now 40 years later, the federal government has come up with a plan to partially restore the Trinity, but restoration efforts are being blocked by a lawsuit from Valley agriculture interests and electric utilities, including the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which buys cheap electricity from three dams on the Trinity, some 200 miles away.

Late last month, Berry, along with local environmentalists and sport fishers, spoke before SMUD’s board of directors, imploring them to back away from a lawsuit that, as Berry put it, “would perpetuate a shameful record of broken promises on the Trinity.”

Some, such as Berry, believe that SMUD, despite its pro-environment reputation, has taken the wrong side in the battle over the Trinity, forsaking the environment for minor savings in its electricity costs.

No going with the flow
If the damming of the Trinity was disheartening to Berry, the impact was devastating for area Native American groups, the Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes, whose culture and subsistence depended on the native salmon.

“In the 1970s, that ecosystem collapsed. The fisheries all but died,” said Hoopa Valley Tribe Chairman Clifford Lyle Marshall.

By 1980, when the federal government acknowledged the environmental disaster, as much as 90 percent of the fisheries’ habitat had been lost.

It took nearly two more decades for the federal government to put together a plan to restore, somewhat, the habitat and loss of tribal fisheries.

The Record of Decision (or ROD), announced in December 2000 by then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, would restore Trinity River flows to about 47 percent of their historic flows—up from about 25 percent in the 1990s. The Hoopa and Yurok, as well as several environmental groups, wanted to see the Trinity completely restored, but even two years ago they acknowledged that complete restoration wasn’t politically feasible, and grudgingly signed on to the ROD.

But even the more modest plan immediately drew fire.

Just after Babbitt’s decision, the Westlands Water District filed suit to block the plan, alleging that the feds had not fully considered impacts on Valley farmers and power users. Westlands claimed some $40 million and 380 jobs would be lost in its Valley farm region.

SMUD joined the lawsuit because it purchases about 360 megawatts of electricity from Trinity River powerhouses every year. The restoration plan would cut off about 7 megawatts from the dam, which SMUD would have to purchase somewhere else, probably at higher prices. When SMUD joined the lawsuit, the state was on the brink of a full-blown electricity crisis. At the time it was estimated that SMUD stood to lose about $2.5 million in replacing the lost power.

Even then, backers of the restoration suggested that a rate increase, spread over all of SMUD’s ratepayers, would amount to less than $2 a year for each customer.

“Whether [the cost is] higher or lower, this is a cost issue of token importance at best. For SMUD to place it in the balance against a partial restoration of the Trinity’s flow seems misguided in the extreme,” Berry told SMUD board members.

In fact, the economic impacts may be far less than originally estimated.

Brian Jobson, SMUD’s supervisor of the Regulatory and Contracts Area, said that the district is re-evaluating what the economic impacts of the plan would be.

Jobson wouldn’t get into specifics, or even confirm or deny that the improved power market would mean a lesser impact for SMUD ratepayers. Instead, he emphasized SMUD’s assertion that the ROD is based on shoddy science.

SMUD has presented its own alternative, which allows for less water than the ROD and relies on regular dredging of the riverbed to recreate salmon spawning habitat.

“There is no question that there will be adverse impacts on electricity supply in California,” said Jobson.

The tribes, environmental groups and other backers of the ROD say it is the SMUD plan that isn’t based on good science, that it was merely cobbled together as a last-ditch effort to cast doubt on the ROD.

SMUD has had years to come up with its own science. “They have had 20 years to come up with an alternative,” but only raised objections when the restoration plan began to look like a reality, said Spreck Rosekrans, an attorney with the group Environmental Defense, which is defending the restoration plan in court.

The trial will begin in federal court in Fresno on August 20, but it’s not clear at this point that SMUD will show up.

SMUD’s position on the Trinity has created a bit of a public relations problem for the agency, which has built a reputation as being a progressive and environmentally friendly, public-owned utility. The district is famous for its decision to shutter the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. And it has been lauded for its aggressive solar energy program, while keeping electricity rates among the lowest in the state.

But, “the power SMUD draws from the Trinity is definitely not ‘green,’ ” noted Berry.

Not surprisingly, backers of the Trinity restoration have sought to leverage SMUD’s own environmentally friendly reputation against the lawsuit.

Byron Leydecker, director of the Friends of the Trinity River organization, warned that SMUD has tarnished its credibility by making alliances with the Westlands Water District, which is notorious, at least among California environmental groups, for its disregard of the environment and its litigiousness.

“This is not your reputation. This is not the brush with which you want to be tarred,” said Leydecker.

“That’s an argument that carries a lot of weight with me,” said SMUD board member Peter Keat. “[Westlands] haven’t been terribly environmentally sensitive. We definitely don’t want to be painted with that brush,” he added.

The board has indicated that it will soon meet in private to re-evaluate whether it wants to continue with the lawsuit, although no such meeting has yet been placed on the agenda.

Even if SMUD backs off the litigation, Westlands, along with a host of smaller public utilities in the Central Valley, would remain. Still, restoration backers believe that SMUD’s retreat would send a strong message to Judge Oliver Wanger, the federal judge overseeing the trial.

“We certainly think the judge would notice if one of the parties dropped out,” said Rosekrans.