Lodi News-Sentinel

Waiving California environmen­tal rules for Delta water is a civil rights issue


There has been a lot of attention for Gov. Gavin Newson’s executive orderencou­raging California agencies to waive environmen­tal laws to deliver more water to powerful agricultur­al interests. There have also been hearings about modernizin­g California’s outdated water rights system.

Largely missing from this discussion is the fact that California still lets race decide who has access to its most precious resource – water.

An analysis of census data for 14,000 individual water right holders suggests that 91% are white. Ninety percent of California farm operators are white and control 95% of our farmland. Those farmers use 80% of our developed water. Many receive abundant water supplies while cities face shortages and our water quality and ecosystems decline.

California’s antiquated water rights laws were written before women or people of color could own land or vote. It was an era when white people could declare Native Americans vagrants and take them as slaves.

Can you imagine if we still had the same voting, criminal justice or education laws we had a century ago?

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act to end the Jim Crow era of institutio­nalized discrimina­tion. Over the past six decades, the law has helped block discrimina­tion in voting rights, education and other aspects of American life. It’s time civil rights protection­s extend to tribal people and communitie­s of color harmed by environmen­tal damage.

In California, that means the federal Environmen­tal Protection Agency should act in response to the failure of the State Water Resources Control Board to protect the Bay-Delta ecosystem. Newsom directed state agencies to waive rules protecting the Bay-Delta environmen­t, its water quality and Chinook salmon. This decision weakened protection­s for several weeks, until high river flows from another round of storms rendered the decision moot and state officials reversed course. This is the latest in a series of attacks on environmen­tal protection­s over the past four years, starting with Newsom’s 2019 decision not to reappoint a respected State Water Resources Control Board chair. He then vetoed a bill to protect the BayDelta from the Trump Administra­tion and shut down the State Water Board’s efforts to update old salmon protection rules. State agencies have failed to stop salmon kills and protection­s have been waived repeatedly.

Salmon are steadily declining as a result.

The 2022 count of spawning Sacramento River fall run Chinook salmon was among the lowest ever. The winter and spring runs of Chinook salmon are in danger of extinction. And the 2023 California salmon fishing season will be completely closed for the second time in state history.

Salmon are central to the religion, culture and food security of Northern California Native American tribes. They have sustained native people for a millennia. The destructio­n of these runs deeply harms native people who suffer from disproport­ionate health outcomes such as diabetes, heart disease and suicide.

Yet in spite of the salmon crash, Newsom chose to weaken protection­s at the start of the outmigrati­on season for salmon.

This failure to protect the Bay-Delta affects more than tribal people.

It has contribute­d to massive outbreaks of harmful algae that threaten dozens of lakes, rivers and reservoirs and the communitie­s around them.

Despite this the governor has endorsed voluntary agreements dominated by a handful of powerful water agencies rather than letting the State Water Board set new standards to protect salmon and Delta water quality.

Tribal people, fishing unions and communitie­s of color have been excluded from this backroom deal-making. Unsurprisi­ngly, these privileged water interests are working to block Bay-Delta environmen­tal protection­s, not strengthen them. Solving issues like harmful algae blooms and salmon fish kills are not even on the table.

The failure of the state to protect the Bay-Delta and salmon runs harms many. But native people and communitie­s of color suffer disproport­ionate impacts, violating their civil rights.

The federal government can help. A group of tribes and environmen­tal justice groups have asked the EPA to step in to protect river flows for salmon and to ensure that Delta waters are safe for communitie­s.

The state has made clear it isn’t up to the task.

Kasil Willie is the staff attorney for Save California Salmon and a member of Walker River Paiute Tribe. Regina Chichizola is the executive director of Save California Salmon. She is based on Karuk land on the Klamath River.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States