Delta Flows: No flows for the Delta if big water contractors have their way

By: Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

Over the last eighteen years, Restore the Delta has critiqued and lamented over exclusionary government water planning processes that have left out Delta communities and tribes, making them unable to advocate for their personal and environmental health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, the water politics of division and exclusion have only gotten worse. 

The upcoming voluntary agreement (VA) workshops exemplify how the California State Water Resources Control Board is operating for the benefit of big water by using oppressive divide and conquer tactics, attempting to fragment and bog down environmental justice communities and tribes – all at the direction of Governor Gavin Newsom. 

The politics of division are evident in the Board’s turbocharged processes and upcoming administrative hearings for Sites Reservoir and the Delta Conveyance Project. But in this case, expediency for the VA hearings and the demand of immediate public response underscores a bold prioritization of big water’s self-interest, at the expense of Delta tribes, farmers, water districts, environmental justice, traditional environmental interests, and California water ratepayers. This impact surpasses any seen in the past several decades. 

This is all taking place despite the US EPA Title VI investigation into issues of discriminatory processes filed by Restore the Delta and our partners in the Delta Tribal Environmental Coalition (DTEC) which includes Buena Vista Rancheria, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, and Little Manila Rising. Adding to the complexity, the Board has compounded the challenge of responding to the voluntary agreements by prolonging the release of documents. Some were provided mere hours before presentations were due, a requirement for concerned parties intending to participate in the workshops.

Following Governor Newsom’s lead on behalf of big water and his faux plan for salmon, the Board is simultaneously moving forward with water rights hearings for Sites Reservoir, hearings for the change in the point of diversion for the Delta Conveyance Project, an elongated, and hence detrimental, Bay-Delta Plan process, and now workshops for the voluntary agreements (VAs) – all simultaneously. In other words, the Board moves quickly for the Governor’s big water plans, and never seems to complete much needed regulatory processes for the people.

This full steam ahead strategy has forced groups like Restore the Delta and our partners to provide analysis towards an inadequate and incomplete voluntary agreement plan, yet again, while the Board is diddle-daddling on the most needed element, a science-based Bay-Delta Plan ready for implementation. The VAs do not include any description on how to resolve proliferating harmful algal blooms and water quality challenges for Delta communities; they omit how they will lead to warmer Sacramento River temperatures detrimental to salmon; they ignore Trinity River needs; and they provide no numeric based flow standards for the interior of the Delta. They also fail to acknowledge or address tribal beneficial uses – how waterways and river ecosystems are utilized and valued for cultural, spiritual, and everyday practices by tribal communities.

The backbone tenets to DTEC’s Title VI complaint accepted by the US EPA are exclusion, poor consultation, and a lack of timeliness over the last 30 years by the Board to update the Bay-Delta water quality standards. These standards are meant to protect tribes and vulnerable Delta communities yet these same parties, along with environmental NGOs, commercial fishing groups, and Delta water districts are forced to explain how the plethora of incomplete VA documents once again fail to address what the estuary needs – all while dealing with Sites and Delta Conveyance processes. 

What is particularly disturbing about the State’s exclusionary water planning processes, led by DWR on behalf of the water contractors, is that leadership continues to co-opt the language of California tribes and environmental justice groups to give cover to what they are really doing with policy. Their actions can best be described as horizontal hostility; “the structural strategy to intentionally place two or more oppressed groups in competition with one another; a strategy that aims to divide and conquer.”

Environmental justice groups throughout the state are pitted against each other through public messaging and in priority setting. State agencies will showcase when action is taken for one region, a specific community, or a particular impacted group without systemically solving water justice problems tied to the Delta watershed. Case in point – the Governor’s faux plan for salmon on behalf of big water. The Governor declared his commitment to restoring salmon through a “Healthy Rivers Plan,” when the voluntary agreements will continue to exacerbate water depletion and further decimate salmon recovery, all during the second consecutive year-long closure of California’s salmon fishery. 

While the Board forces groups to partake in their administrative chaos, a recent video by the State Water Contractors and the Northern California Water Association, senior and junior water rights holders who will profit from the voluntary agreements, includes the “hand heart symbol.” The symbol is used widely by Gen Z to represent feelings of love, unity, and friendship. This symbol is deeply rooted in digital, youth culture footed in diversity, equity and inclusion. It, as a symbol, mirrors the Race and Equity policy passed by the State Water Resources Control Board that still needs to be properly implemented to address process and disparate impact concerns, as well as expanded to acknowledge reserved tribal water rights.

How do the voluntary agreements, an anti-regulatory Delta watershed management plan, that will strengthen big water, benefit tribes whose lands were stolen? How do voluntary agreements benefit communities of color who were redlined away from owning land near waterways? They don’t. The voluntary agreements are nothing more than an eight-year experiment that replaces water with habitat, when fisheries and wildlife need both, to give water exporters flexibility in taking water on demand from the system. 

And note, the practice of taking water from the most vulnerable continues to be extended beyond tribes and environmental justice communities to middle class Californians and family farmers who do not hold the same political and economic power in the eyes of the Governor as big water. The State Water Contractors and DWR want Californians to believe, however, their VA plan centers community.

On its face, public trust resources, environmental justice concerns, and respect and deference to California tribes are mostly a performative reference marketing campaign for the benefit of big water. This campaign is coordinated between political leaders and big water agencies.

With all that in mind, tune in starting this Wednesday, April 24th through Friday April 26th to watch the following panels. Think of the hundreds, possibly thousands of hours these groups have had to put into doing the State Water Resource Control Board’s job of analyzing the wishes and desires of big water, while ignoring the previously stated water needs of the people.

It’s time for a big change in California water! We intend to see it through.

WHAT: Workshop on proposed voluntary agreements related to the Water Quality Control Plan for the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary 

WHEN AND WHO: April 24–26, 2024, beginning at 9:00 am PT with DTEC workshops on:

Day 1, April 24, 2024

o   Panel: Lack of integration of Tribal Ecological Knowledge, Harmful Algae Blooms and impacts not covered by VAs.
o   Participants:
▪      Zach Gigone, Vice Chair Malissa Tayaba or Krystal Moreno, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians
▪      Jesus ‘Jesse’ Galvan, Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians
▪      Spencer Fern, Restore the Delta

Day 3, April 26, 2024

o   Panel: Legal perspective, lack of timeliness and reserved Tribal Water Rights
o   Participants:
▪      Delaina Castillo, Stanford Environmental Law Clinic
▪      Makena Kauhane, Stanford Environmental Law Clinic 
▪      Cintia Cortez, Restore the Delta
▪      Gloria Alonso Cruz, Little Manila Rising 
▪      Gary Mulcahy, Winnemem Wintu Tribe

Additional panels apart from DTEC that also deeply analyze problems with the VA process include:

Day 1, April 24, 2024
o   Session 1: Integration of VA Flow and Non-Flow Measures
▪      Tribal Beneficial Uses — Participants:
▪      Krystal Moreno, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians
▪      Sherri Norris, California Indian Environmental Alliance
▪      Environmental NGO Panel — Participants:
▪      Ashley Overhouse, Defenders of Wildlife 
▪      Keiko Mertz, Friends of the River
o   Session 2: Flow Measure Accounting
▪      Environmental NGO Panel: Flow Accounting — Participants:
▪      Barry Nelson, Golden State Salmon Association 
▪      Greg Reis, The Bay Institute
▪      Chris Shutes, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance

Day 2 – April 25, 2024
o   Session 3: Non-flow Measure Accounting
▪      Double Counting of Habitat Restoration, lack of science to justify certain habitats — Participants:
▪      Ashley Overhouse, Defenders of Wildlife 
▪      Keiko Mertz, Friends of the River
o   Session 4: Science Plan
▪      Environmental NGO Panel — Participants:
▪      Gary Bobker, The Bay Institute

Day 3 – April 26, 2024
o   Session 5: Governance and Participation
▪      Failed Past VA Attempts — Participants:
▪      Barry Nelson, Golden State Salmon Association 
▪      Ashley Overhouse, Defenders of Wildlife 
▪      Environmental NGO Panel – Lack of all of the above, fatally flawed — Participants:
▪      Ashley Overhouse, Defenders of Wildlife
▪      Barry Nelson, Golden State Salmon Association
▪      Gary Bobker, The Bay Institute

WHERE: Joe Serna Jr. CalEPA Building, Coastal Hearing Room, 1001 I Street, Second Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814 and live streamed at at and

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