Tribes say California’s water policy is tied to a racist past

Tribes and environmental groups are challenging how the state manages water in the Sacramento San Joaquin delta, a major source for much of California, arguing that the degradation of the aquatic ecosystem has links to the state’s troubled legacy of racism and indigenous oppression.

A group of activists and Indigenous leaders are calling on the state to review and update a water quality plan for the Delta and San Francisco Bay, where fish species are suffering, algal blooms worsen and climate change increases pressures.

Tribes and environmental groups have petitioned the state Water Resources Control Board asking the state to change its approach and adopt science-based standards that ensure adequate flows into the delta to improve water quality and conserve vulnerable fish, including species at risk of extinction.

They said that the environmental crisis in the Delta has its roots in the history of California Violence against indigenous people, land taking from tribes and the structural racism that shaped how the water rights system was created over a century ago. They said the deteriorating conditions downstream represented “a continuation of the state of California.” A discriminatory history of water management. “

They wrote in 169 pages petition That the state Water Board’s failure “to adopt adequate water-quality protection standards entrenches a discriminatory water rights regime founded on the dispossession of Native Californians and the exclusion of communities of color, and which continues to prioritize large-scale agricultural interests over those vulnerable Californians who live in the delta.”

The petition was filed Tuesday by the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, Save California Salmon, Little Manila Rising and Restore the Delta, who are represented by a legal team from the Environmental Law Clinic of Stanford Law School.

The petitioners called on the State Water Board to conduct a review of Delta Bay’s water quality standards through a public process and to consult with tribes in updating the standards, recognizing and integrating tribal uses of water.

They said the state should adopt new water quality standards that would ensure adequate flows into the delta. They urged the state water authority to “regulate and restructure water rights as necessary,” including older water rights prior to 1914, to implement standards and limit water diversions and exports.

“Business as usual cannot go on. It is not sustainable,” said Kalin Sisk, chief and spiritual leader of the Winnim Winto tribe. “They need to rethink and redo. And do it better.”

For the Winnemem Wintu, whose ancestors were displaced by the construction of the Shasta Dam, salmon Central to their cultural and spiritual traditions. But the critically endangered winter Chinook salmon that migrate through the delta have struggled with years of drought and low reservoir levels that have made the Sacramento River too warm for most of its offspring to survive.

Other threatened or endangered fish species include smelt deltalongfin stingray, springtime chinook, green sturgeon, and Central Valley steelhead.

Sisk and others who signed the petition said the crisis in the delta was “aggravated by the construction and operation of large-scale delta water export projects to fuel the growth of agro-industries in the arid regions of the south.”

Large amounts of water are diverted to supply the vast agricultural land with the cultivation of almonds, pistachios, grapes, alfalfa and other crops. Water has been delivered to agriculture big reduction During the drought period, forcing farmers to leave some land dry or Pumping more groundwater.

But Sisk and others said the water system is structured in such a way that it continues to give preferential treatment to large agricultural interests with significant water rights.

Some of the oldest rights date back to the 19th century, when white settlers staked their claims, sometimes Nail a notice on a tree.

Currently, while many crops are exported in large quantities for profit, Siske said, water diversions are increasing environmental losses.

“How does Big Ag use 80% of the water and then ship their products out of state or out of the country, and they use all that water, and the state is in short supply?” Cesc said. She said the current system gives agriculture too much water, while not allocating nearly enough to local communities, fish and the environment.

In March, Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration announced a controversial $2.6 billion deal with major water suppliers that they say will support the delta ecosystem. Under this proposal voluntary agreementsagencies that supply farms and cities will give away some water or secure additional supplies to help threatened species, while state, federal, and local agencies will fund projects to improve habitat in the watershed.

was the plan Condemned by environmentalists As a set of backdoor deals negotiated out of sight that will not provide nearly enough water for threatened fish or the overall health of the watershed.

Those who filed the petition said the proposed agreements, which have yet to be ratified by the state water authority, are a wrong approach. They said the tribes should have been consulted and the process started instead with updating water quality standards.

“This process is moving forward with a framework that does not protect Delta,” said Barbara Barrigan-Barilla, CEO of Restore the Delta. “And the science has already shown that what the delta needs is more water to pass through.”

State data show that, on average, about 47% of the state’s water goes to the environmentAnd stay in rivers and wetlands. Agriculture uses about 42%, while 11% is used in cities and towns.

But the groups said in their petition that dams and water diversions have significantly reduced flows in the delta. On average, they said, about 31% of the catchment flow is diverted upstream from the delta, and the combined effect of these diversions and water exports halved the average annual flow from the delta between 1986 and 2005.

“If nothing changes, the climate crisis will push these already fragile conditions to the brink of disaster,” they said in the petition. “Without improved management, outcomes will include increased salinity, the spread of harmful algal blooms, the spread of non-native invasive species, the degradation of native fish species, and other damage to the estuary ecosystem—all of which will lead to more violence for tribes and other vulnerable delta communities. .”

People who immigrated to California during the US occupation of the Philippines worked on delta-building dams and worked in fields of asparagus, onions and potatoes, said Eileen Labson, director of health equity for Little Manila Rising. However, they did not get water rights.

“From 1913 to 1945, the racist California Foreign Land Act prohibited Filipinos from owning real estate, a prerequisite for obtaining water rights,” Labson said. statement.

She said the deteriorating condition of the delta waterways in and around Stockton today poses health risks to residents. Labson noted that high levels of nutrients and warm water, caused in part by low flows in the San Joaquin River, create conditions that allow for harmful algal blooms to thrive.

She indicated that the state’s water authority adopted last year a racial justice decision “Officials acknowledged that the historical effects of institutional racism must be confronted across government.” If this decision makes sense, Labson said, the board should “take action to restore flows to Delta.”

The state water authority said officials would need to carefully evaluate the petition before responding.

“Update delta bay outline It is one of the board’s highest priorities,” the agency said at A statement. “The Council completed a significant upgrade in 2018 for the lower San Joaquin River tributaries and expects to complete updates for the Sacramento River and Delta in the next two years.”

This process will include an analysis of the proposed voluntary agreements, she said, and the council will analyze the agreements “in conjunction with other alternatives to update the Delta Bay Plan.”

Sidney Spezman, a student attorney at the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic who helped prepare the petition, said the board is supposed to update the plan and its water quality standards every three years, but at least 16 years have passed since the last event.

“They tragically failed in this duty by the standards they set,” Spitzman said. “Delta is in crisis, and climate change is pushing that over the edge. And the council, we say, needs to act on its duties under the law to protect this ecosystem.”