Overview of the Klamath-Trinity Flow Augmentation Release Decision


Trinity Photo by Casey Roberts

What comes out of the decision is that the Trinity River Record of Decision, which sets limits on flows to restore fish and wildlife, is geographically limited to the mainstem Trinity River, and therefore does not limit Klamath River flows. However, the law that the Federal Government relied on to make the releases (the “1955 Act”) is also geographically specific to the mainstem Trinity River and thus does not provide authority for these releases. The court dodged the tribal trust obligation arguments, so no precedent comes out of the case related to that, which at least means that there is no negative precedent related to tribal trust obligations. Each claim is discussed individually in more detail below.

Parties and procedural overview

The San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority and Westlands Water District (“Plaintiffs”) sued the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation over Flow Augmentation Releases starting in August 2013, asserting claims under a number of different laws. The Hoopa Tribe, Yurok Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and Institute for Fisheries Resources were Defendant-Intervenors, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife filed an amicus brief.

Endangered Species Act claim

Plaintiffs asserted that the Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to engage in formal consultation procedures before carrying out the Flow Augmentation Releases. This claim was dismissed on the procedural grounds that Plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the claim.

NEPA claim

Plaintiffs claimed that the Bureau failed to conduct an environmental assessment, in violation of NEPA. Instead of doing an environmental assessment, the Bureau had invoked an “emergency” exception to NEPA. The court held that the Bureau’s action was “not a continuing practice and unlikely to repeat itself,” and the claim was dismissed as moot.

Central Valley Project Improvement Act Claims:

These claims are complicated, as they involve numerous laws passed over time. The court had to determine how these laws relate to one another and their geographical scope (see below for a list of these laws).

Question 1: Were the releases prohibited?

Plaintiffs asserted that the 1999 Trinity River Record of Decision (TRROD) prohibited the releases at issue, because the TRROD set an upper limit for releases for fishery purposes, and the releases at issue exceeded those limits. The court rejected Pl