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California Native American tribe sues Biden admin, says contractors owe $340M in damages

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A Native American tribe based in northwestern California filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration Monday, alleging that contractors owe millions in restoration efforts for a decimated river. 

In its lawsuit, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, alleges that the U.S. Department of the Interior has failed to follow laws requiring contractors to pay money towards habitat restoration projects in exchange for use of the water. It says those contacts owe $340 million for environmental restoration work along the Trinity River, 12 miles of which flow through the tribe’s reservation in northern California. 

The Trinity River snakes through the Hoopa Valley west of Redding, Calif. 
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

For more than 60 years, the river has been a major source of water for local dams, reservoirs, and canals that send water south to farmers who harvest fruits, nuts, and other crops. 

The Hoopa Valley tribe alleges that the federal government has failed to consult with them over the years on matters related to the river. Updated laws governing the use of the water in the early 90s gave the tribe some power to concur over changes to river flows. However, an Obama-era law mandated that temporary water contracts could become permanent.  

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The tribe’s lawsuit alleges that a contract awarded to Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water district, did not include requirements for habitat restoration payments. 

Tribal leaders said the river has become a “sick place” and is in dire need of restoration. 

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

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, speaks during a news conference on July 22, 2021, in Denver. 

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, speaks during a news conference on July 22, 2021, in Denver. 
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Westlands’ spokeswoman, Shelley Cartwright, told The Associated Press that the district pays a set fee to a restoration fund based on how much water it receives. She said the district was reviewing the lawsuit and didn’t have further comment. 

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The tribe initially sued during the Trump administration but withdrew the lawsuit and hoped to settle with the Biden administration. The current interior secretary is Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe and the first Native American to hold a cabinet position. Tribal officials chose to refile the lawsuit because the Biden administration has not changed course, leaders said. 

Fox News Digital has reached out to the Department of the Interior for comment. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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