Greed and outmoded ideas about nature are usually blamed for the death spiral of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. A new complaint identifies another culprit: white supremacy.
Stockton’s Little Manila Rising and Restore the Delta, the Winnemem Wintu and Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, and Save California Salmon allege that racism is baked into California’s water system.
“The ecological crisis in the Bay-Delta, like California’s water rights regime, is rooted in white supremacy,” begins a 288-page complaint to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It alleges that the state Water Resources Control Board is failing to do its job to set clean water standards for the Delta — which is true — and this mostly hurts people of color, a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requiring all groups be given equal treatment under the law.
To my mind, a persuasive legal argument.
The complaint further alleges water board inaction supports a status quo beneficial to Big Ag — again, true — and asks Uncle Sam’s EPA to take over and set things straight.
Before we get into these arguments, a couple basics.
First, the state water board is legally required to update clean water standards every three years. It hasn’t for over a decade. Back when it did, it relied mostly on outdated 1995 science.
Instead the board has paused itself while Gov. Gavin Newsom encourages powerful water interests to negotiate voluntary water cutback agreements.
The emerging contours of these agreements appear to further shaft the Delta and to perfectly illustrate President James Madison’s axiom, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
“The current proposal would increase annual outflows by only 500,000 acre-feet per year … only a fraction of the increased flows that the Board has concluded are necessary …” the complaint says.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta says Newsom knows voluntary agreements are a charade.
“I think the plan with Newsom is if you do nothing you can maintain the status quo and all this white, industrial ag … without upsetting the political apple cart.”
The Anglocentric status quo is maintained both by the suspension of triennial public hearings that give tribes and Delta communities of color a voice and by excluding these parties from voluntary agreement negotiations.
Even the fundamental premise of California water rights is racist, the complaint alleges. “First in time, first in right,” a fair-sounding variation of first come, first serve, gave European pioneers who staked out water rights the legal right to keep and bequeath them.
White privilege, however, blinkers many to the preposterous degree of racism inherent in this concept. First in time? Are you kidding me? Native Americans were first by thousands of years.
But they were muscled out, even exterminated, legally erased, as white people arrogated to themselves water rights. The real system is “first white person in time, first in right.”
“The way things are being managed for the tribes are just criminal,” Barrigan-Parrilla said. “The senior management (of the State Water Board) got back to tribal organizations and said there is no such thing as tribal water rights.”
Reads the complaint, “Native tribes stewarded Bay-Delta waterways and headwaters for thousands of years until state-sponsored genocide, forced displacement, and broken treaty promises stripped tribes of their land and water access.”
The complaint quotes California’s first governor in 1851: “A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”
Adds the complaint: “Collapsing fish populations, loss of riparian resources, and proliferation of HABs (harmful algal blooms, or toxic algae) uniquely harm Native tribes by impairing their exercise of cultural, religious, and subsistence activities and thereby compromising cultural survival.”
The Winnemem Wintu’s ancestral homelands range along the upper Sacramento/McCloud River watersheds, which flow into the Delta. The tribe’s culture and identity are “inextricably connected” to the rivers (Winnemem Wintu translates to “Middle River People) and with the Chinook salmon, which they call the Nur.
“In the Tribe’s creation story, the Nur gave the Winnemem Wintu their voice, and the Tribe in turn promised to always speak for the Nur. … Ceremonies, songs, dances, and prayers about the relationship between the Nur and the Winnemem Wintu are the fabric of Winnemem Wintu culture, religion, and spirituality.”
Yet, “Damming and diversion of Bay-Delta waters and poor water quality have contributed to the near extinction of Chinook salmon, thereby threatening the continued existence of the Winnemem Wintu as a People.”
Construction of the Shasta Dam in the 1930s and ’40s flooded around 90% of the tribe’s “historical village sites, sacred sites, burial sites, and cultural gathering sites while blocking the Nur from migrating into Bay-Delta headwaters to spawn.”
Native tribes weren’t the only victims. “… At the same time, California law barred people of color from owning land, and thereby acquiring accompanying water rights, well into the 20th century.”
The result is “… a system that favors the diversion and export of water for use in far-flung locales over ecological health and human welfare in the Bay-Delta itself.”
“They ignore the fact the delta is majority environmental justice community,” said Barrigan-Parrilla. “Stockton, Antioch, West Sacramento, Vallejo, Suisun City — everything that surrounds the delta are communities of color.”
Little Manila Rising, a nonprofit advocating for the preservation and revitalization of south Stockton’s Little Manila community, “recognizes that the health and well-being of the communities it represents are tied to the health and resiliency of the Bay Delta …”
Executive Director and co-founder Dillon Delvo says in his declaration that south Stockton’s residents suffer “pronounced harms” from nearby Delta waterways. Especially from toxic algae blooms that blanket water with foul-smelling, lime-green algae.
These blooms prevent southsiders from seeking relief from heat at waterways, worsen the asthma epidemic with airborne toxins, and spoil recreation.
Little Manila got a grant for a kayaking program. Thanks to the algae, it couldn’t put kayaks in water close to Stockton.
Delvo’s declaration also contains a theme I touched on repeatedly over the years: the profoundly dispiriting impact of the degraded river on Stockton.
“These impacts also feed into the idea that the area is “unworthy of economic and recreational improvement … a narrative that is ingrained and keeps Stockton stagnant, just like our waterways.”
The state’s failure to do its job and keep the Delta clean and healthy affects tribes and communities of color first and foremost. But all residents of the Bay-Delta and its headwaters are hurt.
The complaint asks the EPA to use its oversight authority to correct flawed Bay-Delta water quality standards, give the affected parties a voice in that process, and withhold State Water Board funding if the Board fails to comply with Title VI.
It also — you’ll love this — asks the feds to “Withhold federal permits and approvals for major water export infrastructure, such as the Delta Conveyance Project, in the Bay-Delta and its headwaters until the State Water Board achieves compliance with Title VI” and the federal Clean Water Act.
Uncle Sam has 60 days to decide.
Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.