The current historic drought isn’t the only cause of the precipitous decline of water quality and disastrous conditions for fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It’s also been caused by state regulators’ unwillingness to address a water governance system that is rooted in discriminatory laws and the genocide of Indigenous peoples, according to a petition delivered to the state Tuesday. 

The petition was filed by a coalition of environmental justice groups and California Indian Tribes, demands that the State Water Resources Control Board uphold its legal commitment to environmental justice and tribal sovereignty by restoring more freshwater flows to the Delta. 

Building on an amicus brief they filed earlier this year in a civil case, the environmental justice coalition behind the petition includes the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who are the Indigenous people of the McCloud River watershed and whose territory spans parts of Shasta and Siskiyou Counties. 

The petition specifically advocates that the Board update its Bay-Delta Plan to enhance water quality standards and provide increased protections for Tribes’ cultural and historic relationships to the Delta. The State Water Board is supposed to update the Bay-Delta Plan every three years, but hasn’t fully done so since 1995, according to the petition. 

Calling the Bay-Delta Plan a “constitution” for the sustainable stewardship of the vital but delicate Delta ecosystem, the coalition’s petition demands the overdue update occur through an open and democratic public process as well as rigorous consultation with California Tribes. The stewardship of California’s waters during climate change-enhanced droughts is not just a challenge of water engineering, biology and economics, the coalition argues forcefully. It’s also a matter of racial justice and an imperative if the state is to heed Governor Newsom’s own call for healing the state’s relationship with California Tribes

Winnemem Wintu Hereditary Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk speaks to the media on May 24, 2022. Photo by Marc Dadigan.

Even though the Tribe’s homelands are far from South Stockton and the Delta, Winnemem Wintu Hereditary Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk spoke at a May 24 press conference outside the Board headquarters in Sacramento where the coalition announced the filing of the petition. She urged the Board to center the ancestral knowledge of California Tribes about watersheds and fisheries, and honor their voices and rights in stewarding the state’s waters.

Advocating that a healthier Delta is essential to her Tribe’s responsibilities to protect their ancestral watershed Sisk noted that the McCloud, Pit River and Upper Sacramento rivers, which flow through Shasta County, are mountain “headwaters” which eventually flow into the Delta. As the Pacific coast’s largest estuary – a waterbody that’s a mix of freshwater from rivers and saltwater from the ocean – the Delta is an important ecosystem for Tribal cultures as well as the health and well-being of communities of color in the region.

“In 1914, they created the water rights issues,” Sisk reminded the State, “Only the white men actually had rights, women didn’t have any rights, they weren’t able to vote. The California Indian people weren’t even citizens until 1924 and so all other communities that weren’t as rich as other people lost out on any of these water right provisions. So we have to look at redoing some of these water rules and who’s in charge and why they’re in charge.”

The Tribe have long been advocates for restoring freshwater flows to the Delta in order to protect Chinook salmon, or “nur” in the Tribe’s language, which rely on the Delta during their journeys to and from the ocean. Last summer, more than 90 percent of the eggs laid by endangered Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River were cooked to death by the warm waters due to water management decisions and drought. Many Tribes, environmentalists and government fish experts fear some California salmon runs may be on the brink of extinction. 

Even though salmon haven’t returned to spawn in the McCloud River since the construction of Shasta Dam during World War II, they remain essential to the Tribe’s cultural practices and religious beliefs. The Winnemem Wintu have been working with state and federal agencies for more than 12 years to return salmon to the McCloud River, advocating for the construction of a swimway around Shasta Dam.  

Morning Star Gali, Tribal Water Organizer for Save California Salmon and a member of the Ajumawi Band of the Pit River Tribe speaks to the media on May 24, 2022. Photo by Marc Dadigan.

Morning Star Gali, a Tribal Water Organizer for Save California Salmon and member of the Ajumawi Band of the Pit River Tribe, also spoke at the press conference.

“Many California Tribes have supported the democratic and science-based updates to the Bay-Delta Plan, which would provide water for salmon,” Gali explained. “Salmon are a vital part of the culture of the California Tribes whose traditional lands surround the waterways the salmon travel. The loss of salmon has had extreme cultural and health impacts on California’s Native peoples who have already suffered having their lands and water rights taken from them through colonization. California water rights system was designed to support miners and large landowners, not Tribes.”

Many environmental justice organizations and Tribes are advocating for an overhaul of the state’s water rights system, which they argue has historically discriminated against Indigenous people and communities of color, as Shasta Scout recently reported. The water rights system determines the pecking order of users who receive diversions from rivers and reservoirs and has played a role in local water shortages during the last three years of climate change-enhanced drought.

The Delta is an epicenter of California’s struggles to steward its waters equitably and safely. It’s an important ecosystem, especially for salmon, where the saltwater from the ocean melds with the freshwater from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The Delta region encompasses 1,100 square miles and, in a normal year, about half of the state’s surface water begins as rain or snow and would flow through the Delta if not diverted. 

Typically, state and federal water projects pump 5 million acre feet of water out of the Delta and transported via canals to both agricultural interests in the San Joaquin Valley and more than 27 million residents in Southern California cities. In some dry years, nearly 70 percent of the freshwater is removed from the delicate ecosystem, according to the petition.

The extensive pumping of freshwater can cause severe ecological impacts that endanger humans and fish, by increasing the salinity levels of the Delta region’s water and causing dangerous toxic algae blooms. The State Water Board has declared that the Delta ecosystem is in a state of crisis due to water diversions coupled with the impacts of drought.

According to the petition, the declining ecological conditions in the Delta have the most profound impacts on California Tribes, whose cultural and religious practices are interwoven with its waters and fisheries, and communities of color. The Filipino community in South Stockton also particularly suffers from the declining ecological conditions in the Delta, as toxic algae blooms contribute to some of the worst air pollution in the state and curtail subsistence fishing as well as economic and recreation opportunities, according to the petition. 

Wednesday’s petition was filed on behalf of a diverse coalition of grassroots organizations that includes the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians as well as Little Manila Rising, a non-profit organization originally founded to advocate for South Stockton’s large Filipino community. Environmental Justice organizations Restore the Delta , was also part of the coalition which was written by law students and attorneys from Stanford’s Environmental Legal Clinic.

California’s State Water Resources Control Board has not yet responded to a request for comment.

You can read the petition here.

Marc Dadigan is Shasta Scout’s Associate Editor. His writing has been published in Reveal, Yes! Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, and Indian Country Today. He welcomes your emails at [email protected] 

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