SACRAMENTO - Water flowing out of the Trinity River to California's farm-rich Central Valley would be reduced sharply, under a long-awaited federal plan unveiled Friday that is likely to have a sharp impact on farming and electrical power. The plan also means that about 26 percent more water may be retained in the Trinity to protect fish and wildlife and sustain the economies of local Indian tribes - something the Indians have sought for two generations.
The report by the U.S. Interior Department follows years of study of the Trinity, a river little known outside Northern California but one that is critical to California's water picture.
The river, which flows from the Trinity Alps region west to join the Klamath River just inland from the northern coast, supplies about a fourth of the Central Valley Project's electrical power and perhaps a seventh of its water.
The Interior Department's announcement contained several alternatives for dealing with the Trinity, which has been the focus of a tug-of-war between environmentalists and farm interests for nearly 50 years.
Conservationists believe as much water as possible needs to be kept in the river to protect wildlife.
Growers want water from the river for their crops, and they say the farm economy would be crippled if the flow is reduced. Federal waterworks built in the early 1960s at Lewiston diverted water to the Central Valley.
The alternatives listed Friday range from doing nothing to completely cutting off water from the river to the east and south.
In the end, the department said its "preferred alternative" was a rough split - 48 percent of the water to be kept up north, and 52 percent allowed to flow south.
Currently, about three-fourth's of the Trinity's water is diverted to the south. Before 1992, as much as 90 percent was taken.
"This alternative is definitely a good step in the right direction, but we were hoping for more," said Tina Andolina of the Friends of the Trinity.
"But to insure that this new water actually improves the fisheries, you have to get funding for it. Who's going to pay for it? Trinity County can't pay for it. The Interior Department can't pay for it. Funding for the Trinity's restoration has actually decreased over the past few years," she said.
Gerald Meral of the Planning and Conservation League agreed.
"We're going to 'up' the flow in the river, and that is better than not going up. But it's probably not enough to restore the fishery," Meral said.
But growers were critical of the Trinity alternative, noting that they already do not receive sufficient water through the Central Valley Project.
Some utility districts also have been critical, and the Northern California Power Association, which includes electrical utilities, opposes reducing the Trinity's flows into the Central Valley amid fears it could boost the cost of power.
In the Westlands Water District near Fresno, the largest agricultural water district in the nation, the preferred alternative did not come as a surprise.
"It's going to be difficult to make up that water," said Tom Birmingham, Westlands' general manager. "This is just one action taken by the Department of Interior that will further reduce the amount of water available to agricultural contractors through the CVP."
"We are already in a water 'crunch,' and this is going to make the water supply crisis even worse," added Birmingham, whose district is seeking to obtain water from the nearby San Joaquin River to protect its supplies.