California must change how it allocates water to give tribal communities and communities of color an equal voice. Today, that’s not the case.
Nowhere are water policy inequities clearer than in the Bay-Delta “voluntary agreement” process – a Newsom administration effort where water agencies reach agreement to restore habitat and the amount of water to release water from dams through rivers and into the San Francisco Bay-Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta estuary.
California water policy shapes the future of communities across the state. As always, tribes and communities of color are on the front line.
Northern California tribes fear coming years could see the unnecessary extinction of salmon runs central to our religion and culture. For the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, one of those runs is the winter run Chinook salmon, which is being wiped out this year by high Sacramento River water temperatures. This is not caused by drought alone, but by excessive water deliveries to “senior water rights” holders that have drained Lake Shasta’s cold water.
In the Delta, pollution and inadequate water flows have led to an explosion of harmful algal blooms. This summer, the Delta is choked by floating masses of electric green algae that can harm people and kill pets, threatening the health, quality of life, and economy of Delta communities.
Fixing these crises should be top priorities for the State Water Resources Control Board. Unfortunately, Gov. Gavin Newsom has shut down the Water Board’s efforts here. Instead, the governor supports negotiating so-called “voluntary agreements” with water agencies – including senior water rights holders. Talks have gone on for years and have produced little. Most prominently, they have not increased water flows to restore river and Bay-Delta health.
The unjust nature of this process can be seen by who is at the table, and who is not.
The public, tribal voices, and communities of color have been excluded. So have the issues described above. The process is largely controlled by a few wealthy water districts. Draft proposals are kept secret – not just by water districts, but also by state agencies and California’s Secretaries of Resources and CalEPA. Today, there is not even a public timeline.
The voluntary agreement process has failed for years to solve the Bay-Delta’s water problems. It is, however, working for California’s water elite. It maintains their control of water allocations. It has stopped the State Board from requiring more environmental flows in our rivers and the Bay-Delta.
By contrast, the State Board holds public meetings. It allows the public, tribes, and communities of color to have a full voice. The Board is legally accountable. Most importantly, the Board might address the crises that face salmon-dependent tribes and Delta residents.
Senior water rights have been the sacred cows of California water policy. Senior rights were handed out as California’s Native people were pushed off their land or simply killed. At the same time, Asians, Latinos and African Americans faced laws and policies that limited their ability to own land and claim water rights.
The creation of water rights excluded tribes and communities of color. Today, this unjust past drives the Bay-Delta voluntary agreement process.
Newsom must recognize that the failed voluntary agreement process is unjust. The State Board must be allowed to do its job and address the environmental crises facing tribal communities and the Delta.
The governor deserves credit for building relationships with tribal people and communities of color around groundwater contamination and COVID. However, we can only build a truly just California if the allocation of water, one of our scarcest resources, is built on a foundation of equity, rather than on a continuation of a racist approach to water rights.
Caleen Sisk is chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, located in Northern California. Barbara Barrigan-Parilla is executive director of Restore the Delta.
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