The governor must integrate justice into the state’s water policy

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California needs to change the way it allocates water to give tribal communities and communities of color an equal voice. Today, this is not the case.

Nowhere are water policy inequalities clearer than in the Bay-Delta “voluntary agreement” process – an effort by the Newsom administration where water agencies come to an agreement to restore the habitat and amount of water to release water from dams across rivers and into the San Francisco-Sacramento Bay -San Joaquin River Delta Estuary.

California’s water policy shapes the future of communities across the state. As always, tribes and communities of color are on the front lines.

The tribes of northern California fear that the years to come will see the unnecessary extinction of salmon at the heart of our religion and culture. For the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, one of those runs is the winter chinook salmon run, which is wiped out this year by the high water temperatures of the Sacramento River. This is not just caused by the drought, but by excessive water deliveries to the holders of “superior water rights” who drained the cold water from Lake Shasta.

In the delta, pollution and insufficient water flows have led to an explosion of harmful algal blooms. This summer, the delta is suffocated by floating masses of electric green algae that can harm humans and kill pets, threatening the health, quality of life and economy of communities in the delta.

Resolving these crises should be the top priority of the State Water Resources Control Board. Sadly, Governor Gavin Newsom has shut down the Water Board’s efforts here. Instead, the governor is supporting the negotiation of so-called “voluntary agreements” with water agencies – including key holders of water rights. The talks lasted for years and produced little. Importantly, they did not increase water flows to restore the health of the river and the bay delta.

The unfair 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 were excluded. The same goes for the problems described above. The process is largely controlled by a few wealthy river basin districts. Draft proposals are kept under wraps – not only by river basin districts, but also by state agencies and California Resource Secretaries and CalEPA. Today there is not even a public calendar.

The voluntary agreement process failed for years to resolve the Bay-Delta’s water problems. He does, however, work for the water elite in California. It maintains their control over water allocations. He prevented the State Board from requiring more environmental flows in our rivers and the Bay-Delta.

On the other hand, the Council of State holds public meetings. It allows the public, tribes and communities of color to have a full voice. The Council is legally responsible. More importantly, the Council could address the crises facing salmon-dependent tribes and Delta residents.

Superior water rights have been the sacred cows of California water policy. Elder rights were granted when the natives of California were driven 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 unfair past drives the Bay-Delta voluntary agreement process.

Newsom must recognize that the failure of the voluntary agreement process is unfair. The State Council must be allowed to do its job and deal with 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 most scarce resources, is built on a foundation of equity, rather than pursuing a racist approach to rights. at the water.

Caleen Sisk is the 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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