In summary

Despite reversing course last week, the February decision by Gov. Gavin Newsom and state water officials to bypass environmental rules for water storage allowed greater harm to salmon populations already besieged by drought. Native American tribal members argue that such environmental harm amounts to a civil rights violation.

Guest Commentary written by

Kasil Willie

Kasil Willie

Kasil Willie is the staff attorney for Save California Salmon and a member of Walker River Paiute Tribe.

Regina Chichizola

Regina Chichizola

Regina Chichizola is the executive director of Save California Salmon. She is based on Karuk land on the Klamath River.

There has been a lot of attention for Gov. Gavin Newson’s executive order encouraging 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 There have also been hearings about modernizing California’s outdated water rights system.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 Bay-Delta 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. 

Newsom’s controversial decision last month ordering state water officials to suspend the Delta’s environmental rules was lauded by growers and fiercely criticized by others. Last week, state water officials reversed the order as weather conditions changed. Those who applauded the action say this is the type of responsive leadership required to manage the state’s water crisis.

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