lIn the Bay Delta, the watershed formed by the two mighty rivers at the heart of California’s water system — the Sacramento and the San Joaquin — signs of deteriorating climate conditions are increasing year after year.
Once abundant species of plants and animals that call these spaces their home are disappearing. Blooming poisonous algal blooms threaten the health of the rivers and the people living nearby. As the temperature rises, there is even less water to go around.
Much of the crisis is caused by climate collapse, but decades of overuse have exacerbated the problems as larger swaths of water are diverted to supply farmland and urban consumption. California’s water authorities have been slow to implement important regulations, although they are required by law to review the regulations every three years. Key updates are decades behind.
Now a coalition of indigenous nations, frontline communities and environmentalists has come together in hopes of urging state water officials to secure not only their water rights, but also their civil rights. According to them, the two are inextricably linked.
“Everything we need comes from the river,” said Malissa Tayaba, leader of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians. “Water is alive. And we can’t live without it.”
‘If the salmon die, so will we’
Tayaba’s ancestors controlled these coasts for thousands of years before white settlers drove them out of their villages and divided the rights to the river supplies. Tayaba and her tribe were able to buy back the land in 2021, but recently the ecosystem of the basin has changed dramatically.
Much more water is taken from the rivers than is sustainable, according to state scientists. Consumer water rights in the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds represent five times the amount of water that actually flows through them. In dry periods, between January and June, more than 70% of the water can be drained from the system.
In the meantime, about 95% of the delta’s historic wetlands have been lost, water pollution has caused disaster, and species that once thrived in the 61,000 square mile watershed are in the process of collapse. Among them are the Chinook salmon decrease dramatically. Known as Nur of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, they are not only an essential resource but also a part of the culture.
“We used to be 20,000 people along the river and we are shrinking like the salmon,” Chief Caleen Sisk said in a statement after the petition was filed. “We only have 126 members of the tribe left and if the salmon die, we can only guess that we will too.”
The only way to slow the devastation, the tribes and environmental groups say, is to introduce stricter regulations limiting water use.
“What’s at stake? Our people are literally at stake because they’re on the land and they’re already in the ground,” Tayaba said. “You lose your culture. You lose ties to your people — that is genocide.”
‘Hopefully out of time’
But creating and enforcing new restrictions is a complicated matter. Powerful California water districts provide drinking water to residents and the rights provide vital hydration to the state’s agricultural industry – which produces more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.
State leaders have long believed that voluntary agreements and negotiations between the board of directors, water districts and senior rights holders are the best way to avoid years – or even decades – in lawsuits that delay progress.
But key stakeholders, including environmental groups, indigenous countries and representatives of the fishing industry, are missing from the agreements. The state’s strategy, proponents say, continues to build on the systemic racism ingrained in the water rights system itself, which historically blocked access to indigenous peoples and communities of color.
“There could be no more poignant example of systemic racism than that water rights — the oldest — can only be planted by whites,” said Jon Rosenfield, a senior scientist at San Francisco Baykeeper. He and his organization fought for this for a long time regulations and contributed to the campaign.
Lawyers and experts say there is little time to lose. While protecting the delta is one of the government’s top responsibilities and state officials have made it a priority, water quality control plan standards have not been updated since 1995..
The plan is “hopelessly outdated,” said Richard Frank, a professor of environmental practice at the University of California, Davis, School of Law.
Frank, who was appointed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve on a task force investigating solutions to the 2006 delta crisis, said the regulations “need urgent updating.”
“Many climate scientists believe we are swinging towards a new normal of severely limited water availability, which makes the delta’s ongoing problems much more serious and much more pressing,” he said.
‘The threat of cultural genocide’
The board agrees, but still denied the coalition’s petition for immediate action. Edward Ortiz, a spokesman for the board, said it had plans to move forward, but at his… own speed. The agency expects the regulations to come into effect within two years — allowing plenty of time for negotiations and voluntary agreements recently developed by the California Natural Resources Agency, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Department of Water Resources, and public water agencies to close .
These agreements would encourage rights holders responsible for the water diversions to help improve flows and restore habitats without the need for strict regulations, state officials say.
Coalition members see the agreements as a way for the board to allow more diversions before the board decides how much water should remain in the system. On Monday, they again asked the board to reconsider his timeline.
“The way water is being removed from the system is creating a constellation of damage that affects frontline communities the most,” said Sydney Speizman, a student attorney at Stanford University Environmental Law Clinic, who worked with the coalition to file a petition. serve on the board. Legally, she contests the council’s right to federal funding for actions that have discriminatory results. “This is not a story of agriculture versus fish,” she said, adding that by all accounts, this was a story of justice that showed “all the ways the crisis in the delta poses the threat of cultural genocide.”
‘Not just an issue in California’
Concern is heightened by the state’s plan to redesign the delta, a project that is expected to add new complications to discussions and regulations. The multibillion-dollar Delta Conveyance, a 75-mile tunnel that would divert water from the Sacramento River into the delta to supply farms and cities, has been touted by the governor as a strategy to secure water supplies.
A stripped-down version of a plan championed by former Governor Jerry Brown and scrapped by Newsom in its first days in office, the new delta tunnel project still raises ecological concerns, especially as it is being researched ahead of new water quality standards.
In the state’s first report, released late last month, officials note that the tunnel could pose more problems for endangered fish, including deltoid eels, winter-run Chinook salmon and trout. That means it would also affect the tribes and other frontline communities that depend on them.
The project would take decades to complete, and significant challenges remain, along with obtaining permits and financing.
For 18-year-old Danielle Frank, a Hoopa tribesman and Save California Salmon’s youth coordinator, there’s no time to lose. The pain of a rapidly declining delta is felt on a daily basis, and she has already been deprived of some aspects of her tribes’ cultural traditions that depend on declining fish populations and water quality.
“These rivers are drying up because America was founded on genocide and the removal of indigenous peoples from their land,” she said. “Problems like these aren’t just problems in California, they’re happening in the United States. There has to be a change nationwide – that will be the only way.”