A coalition of California tribal governments, fishery groups and environmental justice organizations rallied on the steps of the State Capitol Building to demand significant changes to a “dysfunctional” water rights system in the state.

The collective of 20 tribal communities and prominent environmental groups, like the Sierra Club and San Francisco Baykeeper, called on the Newsom Administration to reform the state’s water rights system so it can better support salmon populations and the overall health of rivers, estuaries, and specifically the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“We are currently experiencing degradation of our water, air and right to public access of our waterways,” said Artie Valencia, community organizer and government liaison of Restore the Delta. “Our frontline communities are the ones who will deal with the consequences of water exports at the expense of the health, safety and quality of life for environmental justice communities.”

The coalition added that they want to be at the table where the decisions are made, and alleged that Gov. Gavin Newsom has not directly met with local tribes, fisheries or environmental activists about water rights in the Delta since elected governor.

“The Sacramento Bay-Delta is the heart of my Tribal community and holds vital resources that have sustained the many indigenous communities that are touched by its influence,” said Malissa Tayaba, vice chair of Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians. “Poor water quality now affects the plant and animal resources of the Delta region, as well as the Tribe’s cultural practices and ability to carry on our cultural traditions.”

Ripple effects

Earlier this year, California banned salmon fishing for the entirety of 2023 after years of record drought shot down salmon population numbers. Six Bay-Delta native fish species are also considered to be endangered species, including the Chinook salmon.

Environmentalists and tribal groups said water mismanagement exacerbates the problem. As water agencies try to meet unsustainable demand and fail to update the Bay-Delta Plan, more water is coming out of California’s Central Valley rivers and Delta — making ripple effects in all of the state’s water ecosystems, said activists.

An endangered spring Chinook salmon swims in the Feather River in 2017. California canceled its salmon season for 2023 in response to years of prolonged drought that caused the salmon population to plummet. Environmentalists and tribal groups say water mismanagement exacerbates the problem. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife/Flickr, CC BY)

“Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that declining fish populations are driven by unsustainable water diversions, the Newsom administration has taken every opportunity to increase water diversions by powerful corporate agribusinesses and urban water brokers,” said Jon Rosenfield of San Francisco Baykeeper. “California must align its water demand with what nature provides, or species that have survived here for millennia will not survive the coming decade.”

Cited concerns include poor water quality, unsafe water temperatures, increased algal blooms and saltier tidal flows, all of which can affect the salmon population that Northern California tribes and fishers depend on.

“California must align its water demand with what nature provides, or species that have survived here for millennia will not survive the coming decade.”

Jon Rosenfield, San Francisco Baykeeper

“We should not move water from watershed to watershed, and we should return land management back to the Tribes,” said Michelle Rivera, project assistant of California Indian Environmental Alliance. “We are at a place where natural resources are being depleted due to agencies’ mismanagement of the land. California has apologized for the atrocities that have taken place in the past and yet continue to disregard Tribal knowledge of the land.”

The group said that the state needs to update its Bay-Delta Plan, which is in year 15 of a three-year review and has standards set in 1995, so it can address the Delta’s issues of today’s times.

‘Outdated and unjust’

The coalition drew their support for three pending bills that would give more authority to the State Water Resources Control Board about where California’s water goes — Assembly Bills 1337 and 460, and Senate Bill 389.

“Governor Newsom, stop killing our fish, stop killing our environment, stop catering to big ag and corporate California, stop tying the hands of the State Water Board,” said Gary Mulcahy, government liaison of Winnemem Wintu. “It’s time to change the outdated and unjust water rights system in California.”

If all three passed, the State Water Resouces Control Board would be permitted to curtail water diversions in times of water scarcity under AB 1337, including to senior water rights holders who gained access before the state’s authority in 1914. The board could also impose hefty fines on ranchers who illegally pump water under AB 460, and confirm how much water senior water rights holders are entitled to under SB 389.

The group also opposed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed Delta conveyance, a controversial plan that would reroute water from the Sacramento River to Southern California via tunnel, and stated that the state’s water plan mirrors Trump-era rollbacks of environmental protections.

Water flows from the Harvey O. Banks Delta Pumping Plant into the California Aqueduct near Byron on Jan. 20, 2023. Environmental groups are largely opposed to plans for a controversial tunnel that would reroute water from the Delta to Southern California. (State Department of Water Resources)

“President Trump and Gov. Newsom allowed water users to divert the water salmon need to survive. Gov. Newsom, please stop blocking new State Water Board protections needed to save fishing jobs and salmon runs,” said Scott Artis, executive director of Golden State Salmon Association.

The California Department of Water Resources, which would supervise the project, refers to the tunnel project as an essential upgrade to water infrastructure to prepare for water supply loss and storm events on their site.

Advocates said they want the state to engage with communities to develop alternative, sustainable water management approaches that prioritize environmental protection and social equity in California.

“To be successful, Gov. Newsom must be an ally to the conservation, environmental justice, and fishing communities; this means he must start engaging and working with us on the front end to craft creative solutions that prioritize the needs of frontline communities and take action to stop ecosystem decline,” said Brandon Dawson, director of Sierra Club California.