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Delta Flows: California water during national crisis (Part 1)

by Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

This is the hardest, most emotionally difficult blog, I have written for Restore the Delta in our 14-year history. 

How do we talk about the vital work that we do and what is happening in California water against the context of what is happening in America:  a pandemic, a crisis in governance, and the exposure of systemic racism that led to the murder of George Floyd and too many Americans of color over the last 30 years?  How do we have this discussion without overreaching from our areas of expertise and our mission, while showing empathy, respect, and support for so many people suffering in our community, the state, and our nation? When people of color in our communities are faced with social and economic injustice, how do our communications about protecting a river system, or water quality, or fisheries have any meaning in that context? How do we navigate these conversations, without virtue signaling, while being good allies to our neighbors of color and focusing on our mission to make the Delta fishable, swimmable, drinkable and farmable for all?

This is our humble attempt to talk about the Delta and California water while being mindful of the context and difficulties everyone is facing: from those who are exposing their bodies to COVID19 in protest against systemic racism and for full social and economic reform — to farmers struggling over water quality, crop prices, reopening wineries, and breaking-even with so many never-ending regulations, including new, but necessary, COVID regulations.

The Delta’s waters are the constant for our region. Our entire community, its wealth, its poverty, its divisions, its strengths, its love, its sins, its kindness, its cruelty —  and its areas in need of reform — were built on the Delta river system. 

Yet, the health of the estuary tells us about the health of our people, and both are very ill.

While, we and our colleagues continue to litigate against bad federal and state policies intended to rob the Delta of its waters, Westlands Water District continues to ramp up its efforts to secure every last drop of water at the expense of the Delta, and frankly everyone else in California, grabbing what they can during what may be, the final months of the Trump Administration. 

Westlands is seeking to take “surplus” waters on the San Joaquin River to fix their self-inflicted groundwater problems. They are selling bonds for a “permanent” water contract given to them by the Federal government illegally (we argue in a new lawsuit) without a contract validation.

Westlands has used its lobbyist, turned Secretary for the  Department of Interior, David Bernhardt, to obtain executive orders signed by President Trump, gutting the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the North American Migrating Bird Treaty, and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) as related to water projects under the guise of COVID19 recovery.  Every federal environmental protection law that helps the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary and all its communities is being undone.

Westlands’ Board Members, under the leadership of General Manager Tom Birmingham, work to keep their management decisions secret; they continue to hide the details of their contract deals with the US Bureau of Reclamation.  They also continue to message falsely through yet another million-dollar media campaign the virtue of industrial farming as the Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman land ownership. In truth, they have attached themselves to David Bernhardt’s Department of Interior with depravity, and their greed motivates them to push the Trump Administration to get what they want.  They divide California and the nation with their constant negative campaigns about the value of the San Francisco Bay-Delta, our water needs for people, and the value of California fisheries. They ignore the communities of color their water policies harm.

Their operational practices are more than a big business fight between California farmers as competing interests for a scarce water resource. They, along with other districts from the San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority, consistently charge farm towns, where their farm workers live, with higher rates for municipal water than what they, the irrigators, pay. They leave communities with contaminated water wells for drinking and sanitation. 

They rely on the Federal Government for sweetheart financial deals that mom and pop businesses in our Delta cities or towns could not secure with any type of equity during the pandemic. They over-pump groundwater, leaving their local communities of color dry. They do not invest back in worker communities, fighting infrastructure upgrades for clean drinking water through Fresno County politics. 

They aggressively work to acquire land with water rights on Northern California rivers, decimating river flows for the Trinity and Klamath river systems, which feed the Sacramento River. Excessive water exports from Norther California rivers are depleting salmon fisheries essential to the diet and cultural practices of Northern California tribes. And it doesn’t end there. They are continuing to aggressively push for the raising of Shasta Dam which would decimate the sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, which has already sustained unparalleled loss when their historic lands were grabbed for the building of Shasta in the 1940s.

And of course, the Central Valley Project pumps in the Delta continue to decimate our water quality, but now reduced inflows and outflows (also pursued by Westlands) create conditions for the growth of harmful algal blooms (HABs). While HABs are a threat to irrigation water and fisheries, they can poison fish meat endangering the health of fishers who eat Delta fish for sustenance. HABs are even a threat to our drinking water systems. 

But HABs have another invisible impact on our communities of color in the Delta. A number of HABs proliferate along the waterways of South Stockton. Youth in those communities, who do not have access to boats, kayaks, or water recreation, cannot safely dip their toes in the water, or safely take up rowing. The degraded appearance within, and odor from HABs, around our waterways is internalized by youth as government and the establishment not caring about them. Too often our youth have internalized that when the surrounding environment is degraded, their self-worth and place in society is of little importance. This speaks to what scholars call nature deficit syndrome – a term that describes the emotional and psychological impacts experienced by youth in an urban environment without adequate access to a healthy natural world.

HABs also become airborne, causing respiratory infections and degraded air quality. South Stockton already suffers from the fourth highest rate of asthma in the United States. But water policies pursued by Westlands of limited flows and greater water pumping will exacerbate these problems for our communities of color. When children miss school from asthma related illnesses, they fall behind academically, which impacts their ability to learn and earn as they age. Environmental policies are linked directly to public health outcomes, and as we have seen very clearly during the pandemic, people of color die years earlier than white people who live in more affluent neighborhoods in the same city.

For California’s native people who were driven from the Delta, and who then were victimized by the policy of intentional genocide promoted by the Federal Government (attacks against Northern California tribes were launched from Union army training fields at what is now McKinley Park in South Stockton), the health of the Delta is still essential to their culture and well-being. For the rest of us whose homes and lives have been built on their lands, from the planting of our first Delta wheat fields, to the building of Stockton, to the sacrifices and relentless hard work of white Delta farming families alongside Chinese, Filipino, African American, and Mexican laborers — the river, its waters, its fisheries, have been the source of life for our region. 

But our communities of color in the Delta, in San Joaquin Valley farm towns, and Northern California tribal lands, live with water system governance that does not treat their water needs as equal to the unquenchable thirst of Westlands Water District. 

As Westlands pursues its relentless campaign to grab water and resources at taxpayer expense, decision making by the Newsom Administration is making conditions for the Delta and environmental justice communities harder. While there’s the Department of Water Resource’s plan for enhanced pumping through the State Water Project, which we and others are litigating against, smaller decisions are being made, in addition to tunnel planning, further eliminating protections.

Even though our state budget has to be reformulated to meet the challenges of COVID19, defunding water quality programs is dangerous. A small fund for tracking, studying, and developing proposals for HABs mitigation has been removed from the budget. The decision to defund needed tracking to prepare for mitigation of what could become our next water-related public health crisis – which will impact communities of color first – is morally wrong.

HABs are not just a Delta problem only, but are proliferating on the Trinity and Klamath Rivers, which are also negatively impacted by Westlands’ water diversions. Westlands, and its sister agencies, can continue to deplete the Delta and the Klamath and Trinity River watersheds of needed flows, all contributing to HABs, and the state’s response is to defund the mitigation. 

The Clean Drinking Water Fund, which is funded with greenhouse gas emissions funding, rather than a tiny percentage of the general fund (as we had advocated for last year), will see reductions in funding due to reductions in mitigation payments by polluters. So again, the farmworker towns in the San Joaquin Valley, particularly those within the San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority service area, will see reversals in protection of their drinking water supplies, as Westlands continues to pollute and over-pump groundwater. 

These are just some of the inequities baked into California water management for environmental justice communities. Westlands, hiding under the chaos resulting from the pandemic and within the secretive nature of the Department of Interior, has no regard for the environmental health of communities of color. The Newsom Administration, which sees itself as environmentally sensitive, is defunding essential programs to protect people from environmental degradation, resulting to a significant degree from Westlands’ farming operations, without thinking through the consequences of this defunding.

While the last month has revealed that the gross injustices within the criminal justice system for people of color must be dealt with immediately, public water districts and water governance that also perpetuate systemic inequities must be reformed. We believe at Restore the Delta that policies that protect all people equally under the law in relation to the environment and proper enforcement of these laws are essential for protecting public health and local economies. This is why we relentlessly pursue the development and enforcement of environmental justice policies for the Delta. It is how we can help bring equity to the region. It is our humble attempt to help right some of the wrongs resulting from systemic racism.

Next: Part II: Environmental Justice Planning for the Delta and California Water Users