ELC Supports Efforts by Tribes and Environmental Justice Advocates to Reframe California Water Rights

As climate change makes water scarcity a perpetual reality in California, the health, culture, and wellbeing of vulnerable Californians and the survival of native species hinge on the State’s stewardship of water resources.  To meet this crisis, the State needs the power to manage all water use in California.  Yet, in the midst of the historic 2014-2015 drought, a subset of water users – those whose claimed water rights predate implementation of the state’s initial water legislation in 1914 – sued to exempt their water use from the State’s control.  A trial court agreed, and the decision is now on appeal.  If upheld, this decision would have dire consequences for the State’s ability to respond to the crisis in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America.

Last week, the Environmental Law Clinic filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, Little Manila Rising, and Restore the Delta to support the State’s appeal of this decision.  This coalition‘s amicus brief argues that exempting these pre-1914 water rights from State regulation and enforcement is wrong on three counts.  First, the historical context of these water rights – rooted in systematic and state-sponsored discrimination, exclusion, and violence against Indigenous peoples and communities of color – calls their legitimacy into question.  Second, California water law places limits on all water rights to fulfill the State’s role as steward of the state’s water resources, much of which it holds in trust for public benefit.  And third, if the State cannot manage and restructure water rights holistically, already degraded watersheds will be driven deeper into crisis – heaping additional harms on tribes, communities of color, and other vulnerable Californians who bear disproportionate health and economic burdens from existing environmental injustices.

The urgency of reforming the water rights system is clear in the imperiled Delta.  Spanning 75,000 square miles and encompassing nearly half the state’s surface water, the Delta is a vital source of sustenance, cultural resources, spirituality, and wellbeing for the coalition members and similarly situated communities.  The inextricable link between these communities and the unique Delta ecosystem is illustrated by the Winnemem Wintu’s relationship with the “Nur,” or Chinook salmon.  While Nur once flourished in Delta waterways, excessive diversion of Delta waters – largely to feed agricultural and other uses outside the Delta – has driven the salmon and other native fish to the brink of extinction.  In the words of the Tribe’s Chief, Caleen Sisk:  “We used to be 20,000 people along the river and we’re dwindling out like the salmon.  We only have 126 members of the Tribe left and so if the salmon are going extinct, we can only guess that so will we.”

Historical context for California water rights

Conflicts over the right to divert water from California’s imperiled waterways cannot be understood apart from the historical context that gave rise to current water rights claims, including genocidal policies and discriminatory laws which systematically excluded Indigenous Peoples and communities of color from water rights.  California’s unique hybrid water rights regime – which blends appropriative water rights common to western states with riparian rights from the more water-rich east – was developed during the Gold Rush, as the nascent State sponsored a program of genocide to clear the land, and its watersheds, of California’s Indigenous Peoples.  The appropriative water rights doctrine adopted by the miners – which accorded rights to water through the mantra of “first in time, first in right” – erased the usage and stewardship of the water by native Californians.  Duplicitous treaty negotiations furthered this dispossession.  In 1851-1852, the federal government compelled California tribes to sign treaties ceding their ancestral lands in exchange for reservations and the benefits that flow from them, including rights to reserved water.  However, after the California Legislature and business interests lobbied against the treaties, Congress refused to ratify them and kept the treaties under an injunction of secrecy for over 50 years.  Although the Tribes’ lands were never lawfully ceded, the State acted as if they were and opened them up for settlement.  This duplicity enabled non-native settlers to assert land claims on Indigenous lands, thus giving them access to water rights tied to land ownership and water use.

Likewise, racist laws and policies adopted by the State effectively barred Asian immigrants, Black Californians, and other communities of color from water rights.  As one of many examples, California’s Alien Land Law prevented people ineligible for U.S. citizenship – which included Asian immigrants – from owning or leasing property in the state from 1913 to 1952. This law was primarily targeted at preventing Japanese immigrants from owning and operating farmland and benefitting from the state’s bourgeoning agricultural industry, and its effects extended to other Asian immigrants.  Deprived of the ability to own property, Asian immigrants were effectively barred from participating in the water rights system, as property ownership is a prerequisite for acquiring water rights.

The ongoing legacy of this water rights system in the Delta

Today, the impacts of this exclusion from the water rights system for Indigenous Peoples and communities of color are compounded by the degraded condition of California waterways, caused in significant part by large-scale diversion of water to serve agricultural and industrial interests.  In South Stockton – home to Little Manila Rising and its constituents – polluted waterways, many of which have been largely or entirely drained of fresh water, are more of a detriment to local communities than an asset.  As one example, in warm months when the waterways could be a place for recreation and a vehicle for economic development, noxious algal blooms instead take over the surface of stagnant water and block safe access.  These hazardous algal blooms pose severe health risks to people and animals, including respiratory harms to humans when toxins from the blooms become airborne.  Pollution from these aerosolizing algal blooms adds to the already severe air pollution that Stockton communities endure as a result of discriminatory urban policies, which have pushed communities of color into close contact with a constellation of heavy transportation infrastructure and industrial polluters.  Indeed, residents of South Stockton suffer from some of the highest rates of asthma in the state.

The degraded condition of Delta waters also exacerbates alienation and displacement from ancestral waterways that tribes have endured since colonial times.  After the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians was rendered homeless by State-sponsored policies and practices that expelled them from their ancestral lands, the federal government provided the Tribe landlocked trust land located about 50 miles from its ancestral villages along the Sacramento River and its tributaries.  In recent years, the Tribe has invested heavily in restoring its connection to Delta waters and the traditional ecological knowledge that the Tribe developed by stewarding riparian resources for thousands of years.  Yet the proliferation of hazardous algal blooms in locations significant to the Tribe has blocked them from accessing the water and its cultural resources.  For example, tribal leaders took a group of young boys on a trip to Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge to teach them to fish as their ancestors did, but they were repelled when they saw the entire surface of the lake covered with noxious algal blooms.  As long as the hazardous algal blooms infest these waters, the Tribe’s alienation from their cultural and spiritual practices persists.

ELC Supports Efforts by Tribes and Environmental Justice Advocates to Reframe California Water Rights 1
From left: Clinical Supervising Attorney Stephanie Safdi, Alison Cooney, and Sydney Speizman

To address the ecological crisis in the Delta and to begin to repair the injustices that shape present-day California water rights, the State must be empowered to govern all water use.  Fortunately, the State already has such authority under the ancient public trust doctrine, the California Constitution, and the Water Code.  Now, the question is whether courts will restrict the State’s exercise of that authority, to the benefit of a narrow group of water rights holders and to the detriment of the general public – particularly vulnerable Californians – and fragile riparian ecosystems.  The coalition’s amicus brief, written by ELC students Alison Cooney and Sydney Speizman with supervision from ELC Supervising Attorney Stephanie Safdi, is a first step in reframing the conversation to ensure that decisionmakers are listening to the voices of the Indigenous Peoples and other communities of color who are most affected by the water crisis.

May 24, 2022 Update

On May 24, 2022, the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic submitted a Petition for Rulemaking to the State Water Resources Control Board to Review and Revise Bay-Delta Water Quality Standards.  The Petition was brought on behalf of Little Manila Rising, Restore the Delta, Save California Salmon, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, and Winnemem Wintu Tribe.

ELC Supports Efforts by Tribes and Environmental Justice Advocates to Reframe California Water Rights 2
ELC student Sydney Speizman speaking about the Petition at the press conference. Photo by Tim Daw Photography

The Clinic respectfully requested that the State Water Resources Control Board: (1) immediately undertake and timely complete review of water quality standards in the Water Quality Control Plan for the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary (“Bay-Delta Plan”); (2) engage in meaningful government-to-government consultation with affected tribes and center opportunities for meaning public participation by other impacted Delta communities in the Bay-Delta Plan review and revision process; (3) revise beneficial uses in the Bay-Delta Plan to incorporate tribal beneficial uses and non-tribal subsistence fishing beneficial uses; (4) issue new and revised water quality standards adequate to protect the full range of beneficial uses and public trust interests; and (5) initiate a rulemaking to regulate all recognized rights to use of Bay-Delta water including pre-1914 appropriative rights and limit water diversions and exports to levels consistent with the revised water quality standards.

See highlights from ELC student Sydney Speizman speaking at the press conference here and coverage from the L.A. Times here.