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Nanette Deetz
Special to Indian Country Today

In early March, just weeks before California shut down due to COVID-19, more than 200 tribal citizens, environmentalists and others gathered in the city of Redding to protest a proposed massive water tunnel in the state.

Members of the Yurok, Hoopa Valley, Karuk, Pit River, Winnemem Wintu, Pomo and Miwok nations held an outdoor rally before speaking at a meeting on the Delta Tunnel Conveyance project, saying it would destroy water quality and devastate the state’s salmon population and other important fish species in the San Joaquin Delta estuary.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has since released his final “Water Resilience Plan" for California, which includes the underground tunnel, a multibillion-dollar project that would pump billions of gallons of water from the San Joaquin Delta to the southern part of the state. It also includes a proposed Sites Reservoir dam project in Northern California.

Some tribal citizens worry the governor and other state officials are proceeding without their feedback amid the pandemic and wildfires that have consumed over 4 million acres in the state. The Karuk Tribe lost many members’ homes in recent weeks, as well as important tribal offices. Some have been unable to access Zoom.

“We haven’t seen salmon on the Pit River in 80 years, and that is just one example of one tribe’s important loss to our way of life,” said Morning Star Gali, Ajumawi Pit River and tribal organizer for the group Save California Salmon. "Governor Newsom should honor his tribal responsibility for informed and meaningful consent with all of our California tribes before moving ahead with this destructive project."

Morning Star Gali, member of the Pit River Tribe and tribal organizer for Save California Salmon, gives her testimony at the Delta Tunnel scoping meeting on March 2, 2020. (Photo by Dan Bacher)

Malissa Tayaba, executive director of traditional ecological knowledge and a citizen of the Shingle Springs band of Miwok Indians, also voiced concerns about a lack of participation, noting tribes had to push for the March meeting and citing a recent notice of intent for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prepare an environmental assessment. Tribes also had to fight for two seats on a stakeholder committee, she said.

The governor's office did not return a call and email seeking comment, and a voicemail box for a California Department of Water Resources spokeswoman was full. 

The proposed tunnel would be a major addition to the State Water Project, the complex system of reservoirs, aqueducts and pumping plants that deliver water to more than 27 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland. 

Newsom last year halted a project that would have built two tunnels and carried more water, in part to address environmental concerns. His administration this year began the first steps in a lengthy review process for the one-tunnel project.

Also this summer, a new contract took effect for California’s most powerful water broker, Westlands Water District. The Interior Department in February awarded the district a permanent entitlement to annual irrigation deliveries that, according to the Los Angeles Times, amount to about twice as much water as L.A.'s 4 million residents use each year. Westlands has been known to file lawsuits to block endangered species protections that hamper delta deliveries, the newspaper reported.

California tribes have been resisting various delta tunnel projects for decades, saying they would negatively affect salmon and other species and traditional cultural practices, including plants used for medicines and access to sacred sites. They also say the project would harm burial and village sites along the delta.

The Sacramento Delta system is the largest estuary on the West Coast. It is a nursery for hundreds of fish species, including four species of chinook salmon and delta smelt, green and white sturgeon and lamprey, along with hundreds of migratory birds and natural grasses. 

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Caleen Sisk, Winnemem Wintu chief and spiritual leader, explained that under normal conditions, the Sacramento River flows into the delta from the north and the San Joaquin from the south. The rivers meet and flow out through the Carquinez Straits into the San Francisco Bay and on to the ocean.

Caleen Sisk, chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, speaks at a scoping meeting for the Delta Conveyance in Sacramento. (Photo by Dan Bacher)

But when the project pumps there now are in operation, they create “reverse flows” that pull water south, Sisk said. The reverse flows negatively impact salmon migration patterns and entrap baby salmon, as well as other fish species necessary for a healthy water system. The natural fresh water springs under the sand will be destroyed when workers dig 150 feet to bury the tunnel, Sisk said.

“Newsom talks about truth and healing for our California tribes after decades of genocidal policies,” Sisk said. “It will not happen if his administration insists on supporting water projects that destroy our salmon and our ancestral homelands."

State officials say they need the tunnel because intake for the current system is only 3 feet above the average sea level, making it vulnerable to climate change. Proponents say it would modernize the state’s aging water distribution infrastructure.

California tribes whose homelands are on the delta estuary also are organizing against the tunnel.

Tayaba noted the project directly impacts all tribes along the delta. 

"We have been strengthening our traditional practices and culture for the past 30 years," she said. "We have identified our village sites, collected plants and materials we need for our practices and our lives. This project threatens our birds, plants, animals, fish, sacred sites and burial sites.”

Going forward, Tayaba feels the most important work will be to educate the non-Native delta community about how the tribes use the water and what the entire delta system means for traditional cultural practices. 

The tribes have requested but haven’t seen any project alternatives at this time. They also are demanding that the state procure their informed consent on any project that affects water and ancestral homelands. 

“For many of California’s tribes, water and salmon are life. They are intertwined," Gali said. "We are salmon people. The delta tunnel project will further pollute our water supply and threaten extinction for our salmon."

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Nanette Deetz is Dakota/Lakota and Cherokee. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and often reports about California Indian issues.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.