California tribes seek federal oversight of Bay-Delta

A coalition of California tribes and environmental justice groups filed a civil rights complaint Friday against the State Water Resources Control Board, accusing it of discriminatory water management practices that it says have led to ecological decline in the delta. Sacramento-San Joaquin River.

Members of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Little Manila Rising, Restore the Delta and Save California Salmon are calling for the US Environmental Protection Agency to oversee the state water board, including an investigation into its alleged failure to review and update water quality standards in accordance with the Clean Water Act.

The Title VI Civil Rights Complaint arrives about seven months later the same coalition asked the board to review and update its water quality plan for the delta and San Francisco Bay, a request the groups say went largely ignored. They accused the board of giving preferential treatment to large agricultural interests and said the delta’s decline may be related to the state’s historic legacy of racism and Native oppression.

“The Board is in compliance with neither the Clean Water Act nor federal civil rights laws,” Mark Raftrey, a law student at the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, who represents the coalition, said in a statement. “You are allowing Bay-Delta to descend into an ecological crisis that further harms native tribes and disadvantaged communities. EPA has the authority to correct these violations and we ask that they do so here.”

The state water board said Friday it had received the complaint and was evaluating it, but declined to comment.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which empties into the San Francisco Bay, is a major source of water for much of California, supplying drinking water to nearly 27 million people and fueling the state’s massive agricultural industry. But it is also a delicate ecosystem that is home to hundreds of plants and animals, many of which are experiencing ecological stress, including warming waters, increased salinity, dangerously low flows, native fish kills, and proliferating blooms of harmful algae.

The complaint says the state water board could restore the estuary by releasing more water from the surrounding mountains into the area, but instead “prevents more than half of that water from reaching San Francisco Bay each year.”

“It has had a huge impact on the tribes,” said Malissa Tayaba, vice president of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians. “It has been very, very difficult for us because of the quality of the water. … Every part of our culture is embedded in the basin, so everything we need and use traditionally comes from there.”

The coalition presented its initial 169-page report petition to the state water board in May, and demanded that the agency review and update the water quality plan for the delta, among other requests. In June, the state water board responded with a denial of petitionstating that the work to update the Bahía-Delta Plan was already underway and was a high priority.

“Fundamentals of your request are part of the State Water Board’s quasi-legislative action to update the Bay-Delta Plan,” the board wrote in its decision. In light of that ongoing effort, “the State Water Board denies the Petition.”

However, the board went on to say that the denial “does not preclude more meaningful consideration of the important issues raised by the petitioners,” and that it would like to meet with representatives of the groups to further discuss the inclusion of tribal beneficial uses in their plans

The coalition qualified the lack of response, saying that updating the Bay-Delta Plan did not appear to be a high priority for the board given the time that had passed since the previous update. The Clean Water Act requires the state water board to review water quality standards every three years through a public process, but the board hasn’t completed a comprehensive review of Bay-Delta in more than a decade, the officials said. groups. Its last major update was in 1995.

Failure to comply with those requirements, the groups said, is a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program that receives federal funds.

“It’s bad enough when California Indians have to file a complaint with the federal government so the state doesn’t violate our civil rights,” Gary Mulcahy, government liaison for the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, said in a statement.

The use of Title VI in environmental matters is relatively rare. Last year, the United States Department of Justice opened its first Title VI environmental probe, investigating the Alabama Department of Public Health for wastewater issues affecting predominantly black residents in Lowndes County. In September, the EPA launched a Title VI investigation into whether Louisiana regulators discriminated against black residents by not controlling air pollution in an area called “cancer alley”.

Coalition members in California said the state water board’s actions in Bay-Delta fail to acknowledge the area’s history of tribal use and stewardship and continue to disproportionately affect Native tribes and communities of color. California water rights were established largely under a “first in time, first in rights” system at a time when state law prohibited people of color from owning land and corresponding water rights.

Some of the oldest rights date back to the 19th century, when white settlers could claim their rights by pinning a notice to a tree. Water rights from before 1914 are generally considered the oldest.

“Basically, the current water rights systems put us last and we couldn’t weigh in on any of that,” Tayaba said. “And while they divert our water, part of our culture is dying without us having a voice.”

This year, state officials announced a $2.6 billion deal with the federal government and major water providers that they said would help bolster the delta’s declining ecosystem and pave the way for larger “voluntary agreements” that would guarantee substantial flows. Environmental groups condemned the plan as a backdoor deal that will not provide enough water for a healthy basin.

“All the voluntary agreements are coming in with less flow than the board has indicated as necessary, so instead of following the Clean Water Act, finishing the Bay-Delta plans, and doing the implementation, we are waiting for a trick. voluntary little deal where the public has not been allowed to be at the table completely,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta.

Meanwhile, tribes and other communities continue to lose vital access to the delta. The Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, for example, said harmful algae blooms have prevented them from performing cultural and religious practices in the waters. Winnemem Wintu said the collapse of native fisheries has affected their ability to carry on traditions centered around winter Chinook salmon, which are now endangered.

“I am very sad, on the one hand, that we have to do this,” Barrigan-Parrilla said of the complaint. “And yet I’m very happy because nothing is changing in California’s water and I think we’re pushing for meaningful change.”

In addition to an investigation, the complaint requests that the EPA withhold federal permits and approvals for major water export projects until the board achieves compliance with Title VI and the Clean Water Act. It also asks EPA to designate beneficial tribal uses for the bay and delta waterways or direct the board to do so, among other requests for relief.

Times staff writer Ian James contributed to this report.

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