Before a crowd of 400 people waving signs reading ‘Don’t Kill Me’ above swirling, hand-painted salmon, Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk declared California’s proposed $25 billion Delta Tunnels a pernicious threat to salmon and tribal rights to consultation.
“During this whole process the tribes have been ignored, and so have our ‘first in time, first in use’ water rights. Our fisheries and our subsistence to water have been totally left out of this study,” Sisk said. “All of the rivers in California are contaminated, and now we’re going to be transporting [water] to the cities without acknowledging we need to clean them up.”
The coalition of tribes, farmers, environmentalists and fishermen gathered in solidarity on December 13 at the State Capitol in Sacramento to protest the recent release of Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to build two giant tunnels—40 feet in diameter and 35 miles long—to divert freshwater out of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta to three million acres of farmland, much of it industrial agriculture, and to more than 20 million people in central and Southern California. Some have estimated the actual cost of the tunnels will be closer to $54 billion, once interest from the financing is factored in.
State and federal agencies already annually export millions of acre-feet of water out of the delta, and environmentalists and tribal officials say that the delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, is in a precarious state. Further damaging its delicate balance of salt and freshwater by exporting more water could threaten the existence of many endangered species and fisheries, including Chinook salmon, as far north as Oregon, the plan’s critics say.
“By taking away our water, the tunnels are taking away from our salmon that we feed on and give us life,” said Jessica Lopez, vice chairwoman of the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu, to the crowd.
It’s taking away from our future generations,” she said, noting that her tribe has never been consulted about the tunnels, even though planning began in 2006. “I’m going to do what I can with my tribe to make sure we stop the tunnels.”
About $10 billion of the project would be allocated to 100,00 acres of habitat restoration to benefit 57 species, including salmon, and state and federal water officials say the plan will achieve “co-equal” goals of conservation and stabilizing California’s water supply, as climate change is expected to cause water shortages in the coming decades.
Many tribal officials agree with environmentalists and oppose the project because they feel that no amount of habitat restoration could counter the damage caused to the Delta fisheries by the lack of water. The project, called the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, also doesn’t state directly just how much water will be taken from the estuary, though each tunnel will have the capacity to transport 9,000 acre-feet of water per second, according to the plan.
Also causing concern and even outrage among tribal officials is that the tribal consultation process on the massive project hasn’t even begun well after the 35,000-page public draft was released. On Dec. 10, the project lead agency, California Department of Water Resources held an initial informational meeting for tribes.
“For some tribes, that meeting was the first time they had ever heard of the tunnels or the BDCP,” Sisk said.
A different iteration of the project, then called the Peripheral Canal, was investigated as far back as 1982, eventually failing to be approved by a public referendum. The current BDCP began the latest proposal in 2006, and the fact that decades have gone by without consultation has caused some tribes to believe that the omission is intentional.
“When they were studying the peripheral canal [in the 1980s], they did surveys and would find signs of human remains and village sites, so they’ve always known that our sites are there,” said Randy Yonemura (Miwok), who has been following the BDCP since its inception.
Several Miwok village sites with burials are likely to be disrupted by the construction, Yonemura said. However, he said, at a December 10 meeting, state Department of Water Resources officials acted as if they were unaware of the project’s potential to damage the Miwok sites.
“It’s a water grab,” Yonemura said. “They don’t ever talk about California Indian rights to water, even though we were all riparian tribes. They know what they’re doing. They’re seeing what they can get away with.”
Though it’s a work in progress, the Department of Water Resources had only completed a new consultation process in November 2012. Thus tribes have a right to be upset about not having a voice in the Delta tunnels, said Anecita Augstinez, the state water agency’s new tribal policy advisor.
Augstinez said she will be spearheading an extensive outreach effort in the coming months to ensure that tribes receive adequate information.
“Consultation is very important, and I do think the commitment and foundation here is strong (at DWR),” she said. “It’s not going to be a situation where we have one meeting and think we’re done.”
However, many tribal officials remain highly skeptical as to whether state officials will seriously consider altering the plan based on their input.
“Even though we have always been here and have never ceded these lands, it’s convenient for them to act as if there are no tribes in the Delta because so many of us are federally unrecognized,” said Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok cultural practitioner and water resources professor. “The landscape has a lot of different layers of meaning to us, and we want to see the delta be what it should: A healthy, resilient ecosystem for future generations. This plan isn’t going to do that.”