Stockton Groups Support Call for Delta Plan Update by CA Tribes, Environmental Justice Groups

Representatives of California Tribes and environmental justice groups held a press conference in Sacramento in May to announce the filing of a potion by Stanford Law asking the State Water Board to update the Bay-Delta Plan. Photo courtesy of Save California Salmon. |


By Dan Bacher | 

Stockton, CA – A coalition of local social, economic, and environmental justice groups sent a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board on June 13 in support of a recent petition filed by Stanford Law on behalf of California Tribes and environmental justice groups.

The petition asks the State Water Board to update the Water Quality Control Plan for the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary (“Bay-Delta Plan”), according to a press statement from Restore the Delta. The group said this a duty of the board that is “now 16 years overdue.” 

The coalition letter states:

“The State Water Board has failed to conduct a comprehensive review of Bay-Delta water quality standards for sixteen years; it has failed to increase instream flow requirements to anywhere near the levels that the Board has determined are necessary to protect public trust resources; and it has prioritized closed-door negotiation of instream flow commitments with water diverters and exporters over consultation with tribes and affected communities and over the participatory and science-based update process that the law requires.

“The Petition for Rulemaking is an opportunity for the State Water Board to fulfill its legal duties to responsibly manage Bay-Delta waters and reverse the pattern of putting water exporters before the needs of tribes, Delta communities, and the health of the ecosystem. We respectfully urge the State Water Board to schedule this matter for public hearing and to move forward with the open, participatory, and comprehensive review and update of the Bay-Delta Plan sought in the Petition.”

The Stockton coalition includes:
Councilmember Kimberly Warmsley, District 6, City of Stockton
Dr. Nancy Huante-Tzintzun, Executive Director, Nopal: Community Cultura Activism Educación
Tama Brisbane Executive Director, With Our Words
Phillip Merlo, Executive Director, San Joaquin County Historical Museum
Bobby Bivens, President, NAACP Stockton Chapter
Ector Olivares, Environmental Justice Program Director, Catholic Charities Diocese of Stockton
Harold Goldstein, Executive Director, Public Health Advocates
Taylor Williams, Workforce & Economy Program Manager, Edge Collaborative
Kenda Templeton, Executive Director, P.U.E.N.T.E.S.
Mary Elizabeth, M.S., R.E.H.S. Conservation Chair, Sierra Club, Delta-Sierra Group
Darryl Rutherford, Executive Director, Reinvent South Stockton Coalition

On May 24, a coalition of California Tribes and Delta-based environmental justice organizations stood in front of the headquarters of the California State Water Resources Control Board at the EPA building in Sacramento and announced the filing of their “Petition for Rulemaking Review.” 

“This petition gives the Board an opportunity to make these promises real by updating Bay-Delta water quality standards through the robust, participatory public process required by law, centering the interests and participation of tribes and other impacted communities,” said Stephanie L. Safdi, Environmental Law Clinic, Mills Legal Clinic, Stanford Law.  

“This summer, California faces a third year of drought. Decisions made by state agencies are killing endangered and threatened native California fish species due to hot, dry rivers. In the Delta, communities face another year of harmful algal blooms filled with toxic cyanobacteria that threaten public health and safety and worsen already dangerous air quality conditions. The threats to tribal species, Tribal and public trust resources, and public health are rooted in a continuation of California’s discriminatory water management history, from how water rights were established through the taking of tribal lands and the exclusion of communities of color from Delta access and decision-making, “ according to the groups and Tribes.

The petition states, “As the State Water Board has acknowledged, “white supremacy led to the genocide and forced relocation of Native American people to facilitate white resettlement and the enslavement of Native American and Black people for white economic gain.” This state-sponsored dispossession and oppression went hand in hand with the development of the modern California water rights regime, which accorded legal water rights to white settlers claiming to put the water to its first beneficial use while divesting Indigenous People from prior rights to the water and excluding communities of color from access to water rights.”

The petition makes the following demands:

Under state and federal law, the State Water Resources Control Board is charged with maintaining water quality standards adequate to protect beneficial and public trust uses in the Bay-Delta and with regulating rights to use and divert Bay-Delta water to satisfy those standards. Pursuant to these authorities, the Board adopted a water quality control plan for the Bay-Delta, which it is statutorily obligated to review at least once every three years to determine whether an update is required to meet substantive water policy standards.

The Board is in clear violation of these mandatory duties. It has been over fifteen years since the Board last completed a comprehensive review of Bay-Delta water quality standards. And the steps it has taken toward doing so have been harmful half-measures. In lieu of an open, public process, the Board has prioritized closed-door negotiation of voluntary agreements with water districts, which fall well short of restoring sufficient Delta flows and alienate Delta communities of color and tribes most directly harmed by that shortfall.  And it has largely eschewed meaningful government-to-government consultation with affected tribes despite its statutory obligations and its own commitments to centering this consultation in decision-making processes.

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, Save California Salmon, Little Manila Rising, and Restore the Delta now bring this Petition for Rulemaking to urge the State Water Board to fulfill its duties by timely conducting a comprehensive review of Bay-Delta water quality standards through an open, public process. We petition the Board to engage in meaningful government-to-government consultation with affected tribes in updating these standards. We petition the Board to recognize tribal beneficial uses in its update. And we petition the Board to adopt water quality standards adequate to protect all beneficial and public trust uses, and to regulate and restructure water rights as necessary to implement these standards. 

With this step, the coalition exhausts administrative remedies. The State Water Board has 30 days to decide on how it treats this petition.

Coalition members made statements explaining their reasons for filing the petition.

Malissa Tayaba, Vice Chair, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, stated, “Although the landscape and the waterways of our ancestral homelands have changed, we remain.  We continue the seasonal gathering and the traditional teachings, we bring back the medicine, the ceremonies, and songs.  We are the survivors of disease, colonization, genocide, and removal. We return to Pusune, Wallok, and other important village sites to remember, to reconnect, to teach, to learn, and to restore.  We cannot do this work without healthy rivers – the lands, plants, fish, and animals that connect me and my Tribe to our ancestors and that are interwoven with my culture, religion, and identity cannot exist if there is not enough water in the Sacramento River and its tributaries to create the conditions needed to support life.  If Delta water quality continues to deteriorate, I fear that the resources and landscapes with which we are working so hard to restore our connection will become increasingly unsuitable for use or disappear altogether.  Such loss would amount to cultural genocide for our Tribe.”

Sydney Speizman, Student Attorney, Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, said, “We need to recognize that the Delta water extraction regime we have today has layers of injustice baked into it. California’s water rights system was developed hand in hand with genocide and dispossession of Indigenous Californians and itself furthered the theft of their lands and water. And California law systematically excluded communities of color from access to water rights even as they built the state’s infrastructure and its burgeoning agricultural industry through their ingenuity and their labor.  The State Water Board has both the authority and the duty to stop perpetuating the ongoing cycle of harm to these communities that comes from excessive diversions of Delta waters.”

Gary Mulcahy, Government Liaison, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, stated, Water. Some call it a resource. Some call it an asset. Some call it a commodity. But no matter what some call it, Water is Life. All living things need water to survive. And when those responsible for regulating and protecting that water fail to do what they are entrusted to do, it is time to stand up and call them out. That is why we are here.

Gloria Alonso Cruz, Climate Water Advocate, Restore the Delta & Little Manila Rising, pointed out, As a South Stockton resident and the daughter of immigrant Delta farmworkers, water pollution, harmful algal blooms filled with toxins, and lack of public access prevent my family from recreating in the Delta’s waterways.  We live surrounded by green water half the year that emits toxins that we end up breathing in. Adequate freshwater flows are needed in the Delta so we have enough clean, circulating, cool water to stop the spread of these toxins into our water and air. The State Water Board must take action to correct these conditions for me, my family, and our community. South Stockton’s environmental justice community matters.

Morning Star Gali, Ajumawi band of the Pit River Tribe in Northeastern California, Save California Salmon, said, “Tribes and native peoples that rely on salmon should have been invited to participate in the voluntary agreements, however, we were once again excluded. Many of the people that obtained water rights through the attempted genocide of, and theft from, California Indian peoples once again did not consider us. Tribal peoples have supported the democratic and science-based Delta Plan updates that would provide more water for salmon in our rivers. Loss of salmon has created extreme health and cultural impacts on Native peoples who are supposed to be first in line for water rights. Truth and healing come through accountability and justice, not through exclusion.”

Dillon Delvo, Executive Director, Little Manila, stated, “Here in Stockton California you either live in a ‘Valley Town’ or a ‘Delta Town’ and those of us who live on the Southside know we live in the valley town where there’s no relationship to the rivers, sloughs and canals that surround our community. It’s ironic because the waters of the Delta had everything to do with why our ancestors immigrated here for a better life. We came to work in the fields we helped reclaim from the wetlands that used to be the Delta, and yet today, none of our residents on the Southside have any meaningful relationship with the waters near our homes.”

Elaine Barut-Labson, Health Equity Director, Little Manila Rising, noted, “I am a second-generation Filipino American, born and raised in Stockton, California, located in the Delta on the San Joaquin River. Our ancestors who immigrated to California during the U.S. colonial occupation of the Philippines, exchanged grueling labor in the Delta for low wages. They built levees, reclaimed lands, and helped grow crops like asparagus, potatoes, onions, lettuce. Yet our ancestors who were redlined away from land ownership in the Delta, and housing in North Stockton, did not share in the benefit of Delta waters. From 1913 to 1945, California’s racist Alien Land Law prevented Filipinos from owning property, which is a prerequisite for acquiring water rights. The degraded state of Delta waterways in and around Stockton poses health risks for South Stockton residents.  High nutrient levels coupled with warm water temperatures resulting in part from low flows in the San Joaquin River, create conditions that enable harmful algal blooms to thrive.  This is why I, and my colleagues at Little Manila Rising, support the Petition for Rule Making for completion of the Bay-Delta Plan.  If the State Water Board’s equity resolution is to have meaning, then it must take action to restore flows to the Delta.”

Kasil Willie, Staff Attorney, Save California Salmon, stated, Many California tribes have supported the democratic and science-based Bay-Delta Plan updates that would provide more water for salmon. Salmon are a vital part of the culture of the California tribes whose traditional lands surround the waterways that salmon travel. The severe loss of salmon has had extreme health and cultural impacts on California’s native peoples who have already suffered having their land and water rights taken from them through colonization. California’s water rights system was meant to support miners and large landowners, not tribes. Now, voluntary agreements are threatening to further exclude the original water rights holders of the state, which means California tribes must fight harder for their water rights and for the rights of their salmon relatives.”

Cintia Cortez, Climate Water Advocate, Restore the Delta, said, 
“I am a South Stockton resident and recent graduate from the University of the Pacific. I will be transitioning into my first professional job in water quality work this summer. During warm weather months when school was in session, my friends and I would walk around Weber Point at the Stockton waterfront daily at lunchtime or after school, breathing in the smelly green fumes, unaware of how the health risks from these polluted waterways. Our South Stockton community didn’t know that we had a right to be surrounded by clean water, or to catch healthy fish from our waterways. We didn’t know that we have a right to access waterways because they are a public trust resource. We are doing our work in the community to learn and improve conditions.  And we will insist that the State Water Resources Control Board does its job by completing and implementing the Bay-Delta Plan.”

Alison Cooney, Student Attorney, Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, stated, The State Water Board has clear duties under the law to responsibly manage Bay-Delta waters. It must review the Bay-Delta Plan every three years, and it must update the water quality standards in it to protect public trust resources, to prevent unreasonable water diversions, and to safeguard the full range of beneficial uses of Bay-Delta waters. The Board has fallen woefully short, and California tribes and environmental justice communities are bearing the brunt of its violations. We’re petitioning the Board today to follow the law and fulfill its promises to center tribes and environmental justice communities in these policy processes.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director, Restore the Delta, concluded, “A ‘voluntary’ water management plan for Delta flows that places the powerful in the driver’s seat with government agencies is not rooted in equity.  The only way to save and restore the Delta is for the creation and timely execution of a Bay-Delta Plan that will set measurable science-based water quality standards for Delta flows.  The State Water Board has a legal duty to bring all parties to the table to work through the entire process, to be transparent, and to protect the most impacted parties, tribes and environmental justice communities, so as to achieve equity in California water management.” 

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