Hoopa Valley Tribe sues California water contract


The Hoopa Valley tribe alleges in a lawsuit Monday that the U.S. federal government is violating its sovereignty and failing to collect money from California farms that rely on federally supplied water to pay their bills. for damage to tribal fisheries.

The tribe, which has a reserve in northwestern California, said in a lawsuit against the Biden administration that the Trinity River they relied on for food and cultural purposes had been ravaged by decades of government action. federal water transfer.

The lawsuit alleges that the U.S. Department of the Interior failed to comply with a law that requires contractors using that water to pay for habitat restoration projects. It said these contractors owe $340 million for environmental restoration work along the Trinity River and elsewhere that have been damaged by water diversion.

Jill Sherman-Warne, a member of the Hoopa tribal council, said: “The river has become a place that is no longer a place of healing, but a place of sickness.

The lawsuit also alleges that the US federal government failed to appropriately consult with the tribe on issues related to the river.

The Interior Department declined to comment through spokesman Tyler Cherry.

Since the 1950s, the Trinity River has been the main source of water for the Central Valley Project, a system of dams, reservoirs and canals that brought water south for farmers to harvest fruit, nuts, and seeds. other crops. Fish that swim across the river include the coho salmon, which is listed as endangered. Twelve miles of rivers flow through the tribal reserve.

Congress updated the law governing the operation of the water project in 1992. It gave the tribe some power to agree to changes to the river’s flow, adding requirements to protect fish in the river. Trinity River and declares that any extension of a long-term water contract is subject to applicable law.

At the end of the Obama administration, Congress passed a law saying that any temporary federal contract for water could be turned into a permanent contract. In the past, contracts had to be re-approved on a regular basis.

Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water district, was one of the contractors that converted a water supply contract to a permanent one. The new agreement doesn’t add water to Westlands or promise it will get everything in for dry years, but it does effectively give the district a permanent water contract.

The deal was controversial because David Bernhardt, a former Westlands lobbyist, was home secretary when the contract was approved and a judge later refused to confirm it. But Westlands and the federal government are still moving forward, said Westlands spokeswoman Shelley Cartwright.

The lawsuit alleges the contract did not include requirements for habitat restoration payments. When Bernhardt left office, he wrote a memo agreeing with staff recommendations that most of the environmental mitigation work associated with the Central Valley Project had been completed.

Daniel Cordalis, deputy attorney for water resources with the Biden Department of the Interior, later overturned that decision. But the tribes claim that the money has not yet been paid. Cherry, an internal affairs spokeswoman, did not respond to an email asking for the department’s current position about whether work was being completed.

However, tribal leaders say the restoration work is far from complete and the river is in dire need of help.

Mike Orcutt, director of fisheries for the Hoopa Valley Tribe, said: “An integral part of life here is the Trinity River. That changed dramatically in the 1950s when Congress chose to dam the river.” “We’ve been fighting for decades to fix that.”

Cartwright, a Westlands spokesman, said the district pays a flat fee for the restoration fund based on the amount of water it receives. She said the district is reviewing the lawsuit and has no further comment.

The tribe initially sued under the Trump administration but withdrew the lawsuit and hopes to settle with the Biden administration. The current secretary of the interior is Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe and the first Native American to hold a cabinet office. Tribal officials chose to redo the case because the Biden administration did not change course, the leaders said.

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