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H2O Conference Hears Tribal Voices

For the first time in its 14-year history, the annual H2O Conference in California will have its first Native voices with input on water.

Top ocean and watershed scientists, policy makers and nonprofit managers clearly heard a call from California tribes for greater collaboration and a seat at the table to jointly develop ocean lands and watershed policies and combat climate change. The 15th Annual H2O (Headwaters to Ocean) Conference, which showcases the latest research in ocean and ocean lands health, the impacts of climate change on the California coast, and how to build resiliency and adapt to changing sea levels, brought in representatives from both federally recognized and non-recognized tribes to hear their concerns and begin developing consultation policies

Angela Mooney D’Arcy, Acjachemen, said that she learned of the H2O conference, held May 23–24 at the University of California at Irvine in November 2016, during a two-day meeting of coastal tribes. D’Arcy, the founder and director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, advocates for tribal input and collaboration on coastal lands and watershed issues with governmental and nongovernmental entities.

“We worked to organize a Native nations panel,” D’Arcy said. “The California Coastal Commission and the State Lands Commission are working on tribal consultation policies, and the high-level representatives [who come to the conference] provided an opportunity for that panel.”


“This is this conference’s first effort at beginning to integrate social equity issues into the convening,” said Abby Reyes, who works in UCI’s Office of Sustainability. Thanks to travel support from the university, tribal groups from as far as the Klamath River region came to voice their concerns over water and coastal management.

The California State Lands Commission took the first step toward partnering with tribes in 2015, when the agency created a tribal consultation policy.

We’re working hard to engage all communities that our decisions impact, to bring them into our decision-making process at the beginning, as opposed to at the end of the process when we’re just checking boxes,” said Jennifer Lucchesi, executive officer of the lands commission, which owns and manages four million acres of tide and submerged coastal areas as well as inland waterways. “This is a culture shift for us.”

Anecita Agustinez, tribal policy advisor for the California Department of Water Resources, noted that two-thirds of the state’s watersheds are in the ancestral territories of non-federally recognized tribes. In fact, during one panel, speakers noted that no federally recognized tribal lands exist along the Southern California coast from Point Conception down to the Mexican border—nearly 500 miles. Agustinez, Navajo, said that at the first 2009 California tribal water summit, tribes delivered specific messages: “Why are the tribes not at the table? Why is it only the federally recognized tribes at the table? Where are the voices of the non-federally recognized tribes, since the watersheds are in non-federally recognized tribal areas?”

Funding for tribal water projects was also lacking, she said.

The move to include Native peoples from the Golden State in this and other policy meetings is in keeping with California Gov. Jerry Brown’s policies and a groundbreaking new state law. In 2014, Brown signed AB 52, which amended the California Environmental Quality Act, known commonly as CEQA, to include tribal cultural resources. All indigenous California tribes, whether federally recognized or not, are included in consultation protocols. State agencies that work with land, water or other environmental programs have been busy crafting consultation policies to comply with the act. Four years before the legislation was enacted, Brown issued an executive order directing all state agencies to develop tribal consultation plans, regardless of the tribes’ recognition status.

D’Arcy made this point clear during a May 2016 meeting of the coastal commission, which took testimony on the fate of Banning Ranch, one of the few undeveloped coastal lands in Southern California. The 401-acre former oil field in Orange County contains culturally significant sites to the Acjachemen and Tongva peoples.

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“Both federally and non-recognized tribes in California have unique cultural information and are sovereign nations who should be consulted under the governor’s executive order,” she said. “The Coastal Commission has not even started the process of developing tribal consultation policies and procedures.”

It did, however, recently appoint its first-ever Native American member, Ryan Sundberg, Yurok.

One interesting comment overheard more than once during the two-day meeting: People as well as nature matter. Previous environmental thought was that people should be excluded from “natural” areas, but that philosophy has been replaced by one acknowledging that people are also part of the environment, rather than separate from it.

The process of expanding consultation and awareness to include tribes has not been without snags, though.

“At the federal level, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management doesn’t believe it has to consult with non-federally recognized tribes,” said D’Arcy. “So our strategy was to start organizing tribes to develop consultation with the California Coastal Commission. It’s critical that the Coastal Commission listens to what Natives say.”

The commission heard the tribes’ message loud and clear. Effie Turnbull Sanders, vice chair of the Coastal Commission, which plans and regulates the use of land and water in the coastal zone, also participated in the Native nations and environmental justice panel.

“One of the things that’s really important as we develop local coastal programs, and in addition to addressing issues like sea level rise, is starting to incorporate principles of environmental justice,” Sanders said.

This, too, is a shift in policy for the agency after recent state legislation authorized the Coastal Commission to environmental justice issues into account while considering permits and developing coastal management policies.

“We haven’t really figured what that means yet,” Sanders said, “and that’s something I’m hoping we can get more public participation to think about how we can interpret this language to be most protective of people.”

Sanders also noted that the coastal commission doesn’t yet have a tribal consultation policy, but called for tribal members to come to their meetings and make their voices heard in order to support implementation of such a policy.

“I don’t want to be sitting here 10 years from now and still talking about the plan,” Sanders said.