Winnemem Wintu Chief: California WaterFix Is The Biggest Water Problem State Has Ever Faced

Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk speaks at the March for Science in Sacramento this Earth Day. Photo by Dan Bacher. | 

By Dan Bacher | May 8, 2017 |  

Governor Jerry Brown receives largely fawning coverage from the mainstream media about his environmental policies as he jets off to climate conferences and other photo opportunities, but Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, can see right through his “green” facade.

Chief Sisk exposed the folly of Brown’s “legacy project,” the Delta Tunnels, at her speech at the “March for Science” on Earth Day 2017 before a crowd of 15,000 people at the State Capitol in Sacramento.

She pointed out how the tunnels, rather than achieving the co-equal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration, would instead devastate salmon and other fish populations while doing nothing to supply clean drinking water for people in impoverished rural communities in the San Joaquin Valley.

“The California Water Fix is the biggest water problem, the most devastating project, that Californians have ever faced,” said Chief Sisk. “Just ask the people in the farmworker communities of Seville and Alpaugh, where they can’t drink clean water from the tap.”

“The twin tunnels won’t fix this problem. All this project does is channel Delta water to water brokers at prices the people in the towns can’t afford,” she stated.

Sisk said  the Winnemem Wintu Tribe opposes the Tunnels for two main reasons.

“First, it will disrupt and destroy the sensitive nursery for fish and all aquatic life,” said Sisk. 

The San Francisco Bay-Delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. It is not only essential to the health of salmon and steelhead populations, but is a crucial spawning ground, nursery and habitat for Delta and longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail, Pacific anchovies, herring, sardines, California halibut, leopard sharks, sevengill and sixgill sharks, starry flounder, Dungeness crab and a host of other fish species.

Second, the state and federal governments are building the tunnels at such a large capacity —  35 miles long with a full capacity of 9,000 cfs — that “it would mean the death of the salmon,” said Sisk. At times of low flows in the Sacramento River, 9000 cfs would amount to the entire flow of the Sacramento into the Delta.  

Why else would they build the tunnels that big?” asked Sisk. “It seems it would be a waste of money for the water contractors not to provide more water in the project.”

She pointed out how modern science is just beginning to catch up with indigenous science, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).

“Indigenous people were the first scientists,” Chief Sisk emphasized. “Indigenous knowledge has been here since the beginning of time. It’s not learned in a book or academic setting. It’s learned in real time over time.”

She gave the example of how indigenous people would make a net to scoop up salmon and other fish and move them upriver if the water was too shallow for them to ascend the stream.  

“Traditional science goes against the tunnels,” she said. “By the time modern science catches up with the traditional knowledge, the salmon will be destroyed, if the tunnels are built.”  

In fact, federal scientists largely agree with Chief Sisk's assessment that the tunnels will devastate salmon and other fish species — and disagree with Governor Brown’s claim that “best scientific thinking" supports the construction of the tunnels.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has released a draft biological opinion documenting the harm the tunnels would cause to salmon, steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, other fish and wildlife species, and water quality. (…)

An independent peer review panel found the NMFS findings are backed  by  comprehensive analyses, new data, and modeling. The panel further found NMFS used the “best available science” and produced evidence of “significant adverse impacts” to species and critical habitat, including unacceptable harm to salmon. 

“If we follow the salmon, it will be good, the water will be good,” she said. “We have to do a paradigm shift. Science has been here a long time — and indigenous people have had their knowledge for thousands of years, with the smallest footprints in the world.”

The Tribe is currently engaged in an ambitious effort to bring back eggs from the McCloud winter-run Chinook salmon that are now thriving in the Rakaira River in New Zealand to repopulate the McCloud above Lake Shasta.

She pointed out the irony of the Tribe being required by federal officials to do testing of winter-run Chinook salmon that were transplanted from the Livingston Stone Fish Hatchery on the McCloud “so that scientists know that they are our fish.  We already know that they are our fish,” she stated.  

She said California should take advantage of the opportunity to bring the salmon back, creating both a better environment and a big boon to the economy when salmon fisheries are robust.

“If we could change California back to a fish state, the waters will be cleaner,” she noted. “I hope that as many people who are marching for science today would one day march for the salmon.”

She encouraged people to attend the Winnemem Run4Salmon from September 9 through September 23. The event will begin at Sogorea Tea, a sacred burial site in Carquinez Strait in Vallejo, and conclude on the Tribe's ancestral river, the McCloud above Shasta Dam. 

During the run last year, Chief Sisk said the Delta Tunnels, if built, will not only cause “more death and destruction” to already endangered salmon populations, but will “encourage and motivate” federal plans to enlarge the giant Shasta Dam that impounds the waters of the Sacramento, McCloud and Pit rivers. 

“We consider Shasta Dam a weapon of mass destruction,” explained Chief Sisk. “It has already taken our homes, sacred sites, burial sites, and stopped the salmon from returning to their historical spawning grounds.” 

“If these tunnels are built, Governor Brown’s so called ‘California WaterFix,’ they will not only cause more death and destruction to the already endangered salmon, but they will encourage and motivate plans to enlarge Shasta Dam. An enlarged Shasta Dam will flood what remaining sacred sites, and cultural sites that we still use today,” she concluded. ( )

The Delta Tunnels project also threatens imperiled salmon on the Trinity and Klamath rivers, since Trinity River water is diverted from Trinity Lake to the Sacramento River watershed to supply San Joaquin Valley corporate agribusiness interests with subsidized water.

This year’s run of Klamath River fall Chinook salmon is projected to be the smallest in history — 11,000 fish, about 10% of average for the last 3 decades — causing great hardship this year to the Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Karuk Tribes that have fished for salmon on the Klamath and Trinity rivers for thousands of years.

For details on this year’s Run4Salmon, go to:  

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