Will Parrish: California’s Water Lords vs. The Winnemem Wintu Tribe


When it comes to California’s gargantuan system of dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, siphons, tunnels, gates, and other infrastructure for capturing and exporting water to agribusiness, industry, and people, Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu tribe has pretty much seen and been through it all. California’s largest reservoir, Shasta Lake, inundates a vast stretch of the Winnemem’s aboriginal territory. The reservoir is formed by Shasta Dam, one of the world’s largest dams, which the US Bureau of Reclamation constructed during World War II to hold back the waters of the McCloud, Pit, and upper Sacramento Rivers.

Despite promises from the federal government, the Winnemem have never received compensation for the flooding and dislocation. In the years immediately following construction of the 602-foot-tall, 3,460-foot-wide concrete plug that is the Shasta Dam, hundreds of thousands of salmon died at its foot, repeatedly battering themselves against it while trying to reach their ancient spawning grounds. The salmon have been the cultural foundation of the Winnemem and other Indigenous people of the area for countless generations.

Now, California is in the throes of its worst drought since first building its modern water infrastructure. In fact, 2013 was the driest year since the state began keeping records in the 1840s. According to UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram, this may be the most parched the state has been since roughly 1580.

California’s business and political leaders have a stock answer: build more dams, capture and export more water. A slew of proposals to sacrifice the state’s watersheds on the altar of new dams, reservoirs, pumps, sumps, and diversions are quickly gaining political traction. These new projects come against a backdrop of uncertainty due to climate change, which has already greatly diminished the state’s biggest source of water in the dry season: spring snowpack that melts from the Sierra Nevadas and other mountain ranges.

In April, Representative Jim Costa (D-Fresno) introduced a bill, co-signed by a number of other Democratic Congressmen, to increase the size of Shasta Dam. Costa’s bill would expand the reservoir’s storage capacity by roughly 13 percent, raising it an additional 18.5 feet. More than three-fourths of this water would go gushing down into the lands owned by California’s dynastic San Joaquin Valley agribusiness clans, including those in Costa’s district.

The dam raise would flood thousands of acres of the Winnemem’s remaining cultural strongholds. These include more than 50 sacred sites, among which are ceremonial areas the Winnemem have used for thousands of years.

On April 19th, Caleen Sisk spoke about this perpetuation of cultural genocide in Ukiah, at an event called “Salmon and Sovereignty: Indigenous People’s Perspectives on Water and Cultural Survival in California.” More than 100 people attended the event at the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse, which also featured speakers from Mendocino and Lake County Indigenous tribes such as Corine Pearce of the Redwood Valley Pomo, Jim Browneagle of the Elem Pomo, and Priscilla Hunter of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo, as well as a performance by the Round Valley Feather Dancers.

“There is no other place in the world we can go to be Winnemem Wintu,” Sisk told her audience. “There is nowhere else we can go to carry out our traditions and our cultures.”

As a matter of necessity, Chief Sisk has become one of the most powerful voices of opposition to California’s pathological water system. She was the opening – and perhaps most well-received – speaker at the “Don’t Frack California” rally in Sacramento on March 15th, which several thousand people attended. At the time she stopped in Ukiah, she was on a brief speaking tour to call attention to her people’s struggles against the California’s water lords. She has also toured behind the award-winning new film “Dancing the Salmon Home,” which chronicles the Winnemem’s efforts to reunite with the salmon.

Witty and well-informed, Sisk offers a perspective rooted in her people’s relationship with the McCloud River and their landbase, located on the south side of Mt. Shasta. It a perspective based on altogether greater depth and longevity than what the leaders of the young state of California have demonstrated as they plot out how to meet future water needs.

“When California became a state, you could drink out of any stream,” Sisk says. “You could drink out of any spring. And now, they say that all of the rivers are contaminated. So, not only are they not talking about how to clean up the water, but that they are focusing on where to export all the contaminated water. Where is the effort to clean it up?”

Brown Water Planning

The idea of exporting a greater volume of McCloud, Pit, and upper Sacramento River water to southern California agribusiness, industry, and suburban development is part and parcel of what Sisk refers to as “Brown Water Planning.” The Brown and Obama administrations are both pressing for the euphemistically named San Francisco Bay Delta Conservation Plan, better known as the “Delta Twin Tunnels” as a means of expanding California’s water export capacity. It is one of the most destructive ideas ever devised for California’s water system.

First, a bit about the ecology and geography of the San Francisco Bay Delta. Roughly two-thirds of Californians (some 22 million people) rely on the Delta and its tributaries as their primary water source. Yet, according to polling data, three out of four Californians do not know where the Delta is, nor are they aware of its role in providing for the state’s water supplies.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Bay Delta watershed covers more than 75,000 square miles and includes the largest estuary on the west coasts of North and South America. This vast (though now badly damaged) ecological treasure also contains the only inland delta in the world. About two-thirds of California’s salmon pass through it on their way upstream to spawn. It is where the California’s two largest rivers (the Sacramento and San Joaquin) end. It is also where one of the world’s greatest water engineering projects begin.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin join at at the western end of the Delta near the town of Pittsburg, at the head of Suisun Bay. They transport about half of the state’s total water run-off. More than seventy percent of the water exported from there goes to the San Joaquin Valley, coastal Central, and Southern California for agribusiness and suburbia.

The Twin Tunnels would be a pair of 40-foot diameter water pipelines that would tap into the Sacramento River south of the Shasta Dam, but upstream of the Delta. They would have a capacity to siphon 75,000 gallons of water per second, which is enough to drain, in theory, every single drop of the Sacramento River, California’s largest waterway and formerly the most productive salmon fishery in the United States.

The tunnels would convey water 45 miles to the massive export pumps located in the town of Tracy, at the south end of the SF Bay Delta. Operated by the federal government, these pumps sit at the head of the 117-mile-long Delta-Mendota Canal, which sends water gushing through the Inner Coast Ranges down to the western San Joaquin Valley, home of the powerful Westlands Water District, on which more below. Beyond that lies Kern County, home of the oil industry (including water-intensive fracking wells), more agribusiness, and prospective urban development.

The Bay Delta Plan would also create new political impetus behind raising existing dams and building new ones on northern California rivers to store and feed more fresh water into the tunnels. The plan to raise Shasta Dam and enlarge its reservoir is one.

“This water plan is one big toilet,” Caleen Sisk explains. “Shasta Dam is the tank. The San Francisco Bay Estuary is the bowl. And the tunnels are the exit pipes, one of which goes right to Westlands Water District to provide for their selenium-laden, poisoned crops. Another is designed to go off into two fracking mines. And five pipes are designed to go off into the desert for new communities that would be homes for five million new people who are moving to California.”

According to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s Environmental Impact Statement, the operation of the twin tunnels, coupled with the impacts of climate change, would greatly drain many of northern California’s greatest rivers, which feed into the Sacramento River either naturally or, in the case of the Trinity River, due to a human-constructed diversion. These include the Trinity Reservoir (which would experience a reduction of 19 percent, according to the EIS), Folsom Reservoir (31 percent), and Oroville Reservoir (32 percent). The result may be even lower flows, particularly in the fall, in the Trinity, Sacramento, American, and Feather Rivers.

Touted by Gov. Jerry Brown as a solution to the state’s intractable water conflicts, the BDCP seeks “co-equal” goals: restoring the Delta’s aquatic ecosystems, while also enhancing the state’s water supplies. Yet, the idea of restoring an ecosystem degraded by fresh water diversions by building new infrastructure to divert even more fresh water largely speaks for itself.

Already, the small Delta smelt – a key indicator species for the health of the Delta’s ecosystem – is on the edge of extinction. Nearly every species of fish that lives in the Delta has suffered a more than 90 percent population decline in the past half-century. The vast reduction of freshwater inflows would increase the salinity of the water in which these fish live, potentially rendering it uninhabitable for them. What would be the greater ecological consequences of more or less turning the largest freshwater estuary on the Pacific Ocean into a dead zone?

New Reservoirs

In the San Joaquin Valley, a cornucopia of more than 200 crops that generates $15 billion a year in gross farm income. The biggest agricultural irrigation district in North America, the Westlands Water District, principally resides here. Irrigation districts like Westlands are local-government entities that hold long-term contracts for water supplied by two massive water projects: the Central Valley Project, which is operated by the federal government, and the State Water Project. The districts, in turn, sell water to individual farmers within their boundaries.

The Westlands district encompasses nearly 1,000 square miles of Fresno and King counties on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. The district is dominated – notoriously so – by a relative handful of large growers, including the ultra-influential Boswell cotton dynasty (the late JG Boswell was often referred to as “The King of California”), which controls 150,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley town of Corcoran, and Paramount Farms, perhaps the largest agricultural company in the United States in terms of revenue, which is operated by the infamously well-connected Bevery Hills billionaires Stuart and Lynda Resnick (the Resnicks are great friends of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, for instance).

While this arid region has produced an indisputable bounty of cotton and other field crops over the decades, the state and federal government’s costly irrigation of this mineral-laden desert is also one of the greatest water hogs ever to develop on earth. California has perhaps the most hydrologically altered landscape on the planet. Roughly 80 percent of its water consumption is by agribusiness, although agriculture accounts for only two percent of the state’s GDP.

In spite of the dire straits of migrating salmon and other life in the state’s rivers and estuaries, California’s Big Ag-sponsored senator, Dianne Feinstein has been pressuring state and federal water agencies to provide maximum pumping of the season’s rains to provide relief to San Joaquin Valley farms. Feinstein calls this pumping “the maximum amount allowed by environmental law.” Going perhaps a bit further are Republicans in the US House of Representatives, who passed a bill in February that would suspend environmental protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta entirely, enabling all the water to be pumped south.

Feinstein recently complained to the San Francisco Chronicle that environmentalists “have never been helpful to me in producing good water policy.” Largely due to Feinstein’s efforts, nearly two-thirds of the natural flow in the San Francisco Bay Delta watershed was captured in upstream storage or exported between February 1st and April 15th. The one-third left over was needed just to prevent salinity intrusion in order to protect water quality for the export pumps and other water users. The well-being of the ecosystems, including the struggling fish (not to mention the fishing industry) was otherwise ignored.

Meanwhile, under Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result), California’s political and business are either insane or care little about the fate of the state’s ecosystems. A spate of new storage proposals are wending their way through the legislative process.

One of these would create a huge new dam called Temperance Flat on the Upper San Joaquin River. At 665 feet, Temperance Flat Dam would be the second highest dam in California, and the fifth tallest dam in the United States (it would be about 63 feet higher than Shasta Dam). Representative Jim Costa introduced a bill to authorize construction of the dam in February.

Another proposal is to expand San Luis Reservoir, the artificial lake on San Luis Creek in the eastern slopes of the Diablo Range of Merced County, which stores water taken from the San Francisco Bay Delta. The 305-foot-tall earthen dam that traps water in the reservoir would be raised by 20 feet, at a cost of roughly $360 million.

And, just east of Lake County and the Mendocino National Forest, not far from the Central Valley town of Maxwell, a reservoir five times bigger than Lake Sonoma would be constructed at a cost of $4 billion. In March, Democratic Congressman John Garamendi and Republican Doug Le Malfa introduced a bill to authorize the Sikes Reservoir, which would involve construction of two large dams up to 310 feet high to capture Sacramento River water and store it for releases during the dry season.

“We want to use the moment when people are focused and interested,” Rep. Garamendi, a fairly liberal Democrat, told the Sacramento Bee. “We’ve got to move these projects forward.”

The Sites project would flood the Antelope Valley, which is about 10 miles west of the small town of Maxwell on Interstate 5. It would also drown up to 14,000 acres of grassland, oak woodland, chaparral, riparian habitat, vernal pools, and wetlands (including 19 acres of rare alkali wetlands).

The dam could take water from the Sacramento River, including potentially during the spring. “One perfectly legal diversion scenario could take up to 67 percent of the average flow of the Sacramento Rier during the month of April,” writes the group Friends of the River. “Further modifying flows in the Sacramento River could affect the river’s riparian and aquatic habitats, and the plethora of sensitive, threatened, and endangered fish and wildlife species that depend on those habitats.”

We have reached a pretty pass in the degradation of California’s water supplies. In spite of all of the water exports, farmers in the Central Valley still rely heavily on groundwater. So much water has been pumped from aquifers beneath Central Valley between 2003 and 2008 that it would fill Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation. Farmers are now drilling wells 2,000 feet deep before they hit water.

Thus, building new water storage may, in a sense be easier. What is missing is a discussion of the long-term consequences of continuing to grow melons, cotton, and pistachios in the desert, of continuing with the same type of water infrastructure that is rapidly undermining the ecological health of the state’s watersheds.

The Middle Water People

In their language, the Winnemem Wintu are known as “The Middle Water People.” The McCloud River is bounded by the Upper Sacramento to the West and the Pit River to the East. As Caleen Sisk often says regarding her people, “We were born from water, we are of the water, and we fight to protect it.”

Construction of Shasta Dam followed a century of violence against Northern California’s Indigenous people, initially perpetrated by invading miners and governmental policies of extermination. The Winnemem once numbered approximately 14,000. By 1910, that number had plummeted to 400. Today, the tribe’s population is approximately 150.

The U.S. government first recognized the Winnemem Wintu in 1851, when it entered into the Cottonwood Treaty. Through this treaty, the Winnemem Wintu and several other Native American tribes ceded their homelands to the United States in exchange for the creation of a 35-square mile reservation. The federal government promptly “lost” this and 17 other treaties with California First Nations, and they were never ratified.

Less than thirty years later, an additional 280 acres were taken for the establishment of a government reservation fish hatchery along the McCloud River – the first-ever in California. The Winnemem were employed at the hatchery due to their extensive knowledge of salmon. In 1941, Congress enacted the Central Valley Project Indian Land Acquisition Act, which provided for the creation of the Shasta Dam along the McCloud River. The Winnemem have lived in the shadow of the dam, which flooded many of their traditional lands, ever since.

Since 1985, the U.S. government has refused to grant federal recognition of the Winnemem Wintu tribe. The lack of federal recognition cuts off federal benefits that are provided to tribes with federal recognition. It also conveniently dovetails with the maintenance and potential expansion of the Shasta Dam. As of now, the Winnemem have virtually no legal standing in their fight to maintain their traditional waters.

While struggling to maintain their culture together under such circumstances, the Winnemem also face battles on multiple fronts. Nestle Corporation has been snatching up land in their traditional territory on Mt. Shasta through the years. The multi-national private water company has mulled plans for several years to build a million square foot water bottling plant on the McCloud. And, if it wasn’t bad enough that the Westlands Water District receives huge quantities of water exported from Shasta Dam, the agribusiness-dominated water district also purchased a 3,000-acre- stretch of the McCloud in 2007, which they have talked of “annexing” into their district.

In 2004, the Winnemem conducted their first war dance in more than 100 years. In their effort to bring the salmon home, the tribe had openly declared war with the US government (a war that is not intended to involve armed struggle, it should be noted).

News of the war dance brought Caleen Sisk into contact with the Maori people of New Zealand. When the Shasta Dam was being constructed, the Chinook salmon were distributed to fisheries around the world, including New Zealand. There, the Chinook continue to migrate and thrive in the Rakai River, while their siblings on the Sacramento River struggle to survive.

The Winnemem are now working with fisheries biologists to have the progeny of these salmon who were displaced from their river returned home. Yet, the salmon would be unable to survive in the McCloud under present conditions.

So, the Winnemem are struggling to prevent the Shasta Dam raise and the Twin Tunnels. They also aim to bring down the Shasta Dam, which continues to block the fish’s migration. The fight to return the salmon runs on the McCloud is, as the Winnemem’s web site puts it, “no less than a fight to save the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.”

“We believe that when the last salmon is gone, humans will be gone too,” Caleen Sisk says.

For more information on the Winnemem Wintu, seehttp://www.winnememwintu.us. To listen to a recording of Caleen Sisk’s talk in Ukiah, see http://www.tucradio.org/Caleen_Sisk_ONEofTWO.mp3

(Contact Will Parrish at wparrish@riseup.net.)