Winnemem Wintu Chief: California WaterFix Is The Biggest Water Problem State Has Ever Faced

In the midst of a 300-mile trek and prayer journey to bring salmon back to the McCloud River, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe and their allies converge on the State Capitol to demand a change in California’s water policy.

Chief Caleen Sisk

Chief Sisk exposed the folly of Brown’s “legacy project,” the Delta Tunnels, at her speech at the “March for Science” on Earth Day 2017 before a crowd of 15,000 people at the State Capitol in Sacramento.

She pointed out how the tunnels, rather than achieving the co-equal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration, would instead devastate salmon and other fish populations while doing nothing to supply clean drinking water for people in impoverished rural communities in the San Joaquin Valley.

“The California Water Fix is the biggest water problem, the most devastating project, that Californians have ever faced,” said Chief Sisk. “Just ask the people in the farmworker communities of Seville and Alpaugh, where they can’t drink clean water from the tap.”

“The twin tunnels won’t fix this problem. All this project does is channel Delta water to water brokers at prices the people in the towns can’t afford,” she stated.

Sisk said  the Winnemem Wintu Tribe opposes the Tunnels for two main reasons.

“First, it will disrupt and destroy the sensitive nursery for fish and all aquatic life,” said Sisk. 

The San Francisco Bay-Delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. It is not only essential to the health of salmon and steelhead populations, but is a crucial spawning ground, nursery and habitat for Delta and longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail, Pacific anchovies, herring, sardines, California halibut, leopard sharks, sevengill and sixgill sharks, starry flounder, Dungeness crab and a host of other fish species.

Second, the state and federal governments are building the tunnels at such a large capacity —  35 miles long with a full capacity of 9,000 cfs — that “it would mean the death of the salmon,” said Sisk. At times of low flows in the Sacramento River, 9000 cfs would amount to the entire flow of the Sacramento into the Delta.  

Why else would they build the tunnels that big?” asked Sisk. “It seems it would be a waste of money for the water contractors not to provide more water in the project.”

She pointed out how modern science is just beginning to catch up with indigenous science, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).

“Indigenous people were the first scientists,” Chief Sisk emphasized. “Indigenous knowledge has been here since the beginning of time. It’s not learned in a book or academic setting. It’s learned in real time over time.”

She gave the example of how indigenous people would make a net to scoop up salmon and other fish and move them upriver if the water was too shallow for them to ascend the stream.  

“Traditional science goes against the tunnels,” she said. “By the time modern science catches up with the traditional knowledge, the salmon will be destroyed, if the tunnels are built.”  

In fact, federal scientists largely agree with Chief Sisk's assessment that the tunnels will devastate salmon and other fish species — and disagree with Governor Brown’s claim that “best scientific thinking" supports the construction of the tunnels.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has released a draft biological opinion documenting the harm the tunnels would cause to salmon, steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, other fish and wildlife species, and water quality.

An independent peer review panel found the NMFS findings are backed  by  comprehensive analyses, new data, and modeling. The panel further found NMFS used the “best available science” and produced evidence of “significant adverse impacts” to species and critical habitat, including unacceptable harm to salmon. 

“If we follow the salmon, it will be good, the water will be good,” she said. “We have to do a paradigm shift. Science has been here a long time — and indigenous people have had their knowledge for thousands of years, with the smallest footprints in the world.”

The Tribe is currently engaged in an ambitious effort to bring back eggs from the McCloud winter-run Chinook salmon that are now thriving in the Rakaira River in New Zealand to repopulate the McCloud above Lake Shasta.

She pointed out the irony of the Tribe being required by federal officials to do testing of winter-run Chinook salmon that were transplanted from the Livingston Stone Fish Hatchery on the McCloud “so that scientists know that they are our fish.  We already know that they are our fish,” she stated.  

She said California should take advantage of the opportunity to bring the salmon back, creating both a better environment and a big boon to the economy when salmon fisheries are robust.

“If we could change California back to a fish state, the waters will be cleaner,” she noted. “I hope that as many people who are marching for science today would one day march for the salmon.”

She encouraged people to attend the Winnemem Run4Salmon from September 9 through September 23. The event will begin at Sogorea Tea, a sacred burial site in Carquinez Strait in Vallejo, and conclude on the Tribe's ancestral river, the McCloud above Shasta Dam. 

During the run last year, Chief Sisk said the Delta Tunnels, if built, will not only cause “more death and destruction” to already endangered salmon populations, but will “encourage and motivate” federal plans to enlarge the giant Shasta Dam that impounds the waters of the Sacramento, McCloud and Pit rivers. 

“We consider Shasta Dam a weapon of mass destruction,” explained Chief Sisk. “It has already taken our homes, sacred sites, burial sites, and stopped the salmon from returning to their historical spawning grounds.” 

“If these tunnels are built, Governor Brown’s so called ‘California WaterFix,’ they will not only cause more death and destruction to the already endangered salmon, but they will encourage and motivate plans to enlarge Shasta Dam. An enlarged Shasta Dam will flood what remaining sacred sites, and cultural sites that we still use today,” she concluded. (http://www.winnememwintu.us/2016/09/19/press-release-dams-dead-fish-tunnels-and-indians/ )

The Delta Tunnels project also threatens imperiled salmon on the Trinity and Klamath rivers, since Trinity River water is diverted from Trinity Lake to the Sacramento River watershed to supply San Joaquin Valley corporate agribusiness interests with subsidized water.

This year’s run of Klamath River fall Chinook salmon is projected to be the smallest in history — 11,000 fish, about 10% of average for the last 3 decades — causing great hardship this year to the Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Karuk Tribes that have fished for salmon on the Klamath and Trinity rivers for thousands of years.

PRESS RELEASE FROM WINNEMEM WINTU TRIBE: 

With plans to build new Dams and expand existing ones, and proposing to build two forty-foot Tunnels to divert more water out of the Delta, the stakes could not be higher for all of Californian.  Fish species are on the verge of extinction.  Disadvantaged Communities, subsistence fishermen, and small family farmers could see their water and way of life disappear altogether.  And, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who suffered over 90% loss of their traditional homeland, sacred sites, and cultural gathering sites along the Sacramento, McCloud and Pit Rivers when Shasta Dam was built, will again suffer the brunt of this destructive water policy.

The Winnemem Wintu and their allies have embarked on a 300-mile prayer journey from Sogorea Te (Glen Cove, Vallejo) to the historical spawning grounds of the winter-run salmon on the McCloud River.  This journey is a walk/run/boat/bike and horseback ride to bring attention to the plight of all the runs of salmon in California, and the water management practices that have brought some of those runs to the edge of extinction.  It is a prayer to let Californians know that the water they enjoy has come to them at the cost of others and the threat of death and extinction to species necessary for a healthy California.

Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe says, “We consider Shasta Dam a weapon of mass destruction.  It has already taken our homes, sacred sites, burial sites, and stopped the salmon from returning to their historical spawning grounds.  If these tunnels are built, Governor Brown’s so called ‘California WaterFix’, they will not only cause more death and destruction to the already endangered salmon, but they will encourage and motivate plans to enlarge Shasta Dam.  An enlarged Shasta Dam will flood what remaining sacred sites, and cultural sites that we still use today.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director for Restore the Delta states, “Restore the Delta stands today with the Winnemem Wintu calling on Governor Brown to abandon a failed water plan for California.  The era of unlimited water resource development is over.  As we revealed last week in the state’s own economic analysis, the only way to make the Delta tunnels pencil out in terms of water delivery is to take even more water from the Delta — which will finish off its fisheries, its entire ecosystem.  And to make matters worse, the government expects you and me to pay for this destruction with our taxes.”

Trent Orr, a lawyer for Earthjustice, which represents the Winnemem Wintu in various legal fights to protect and restore salmon, said:

 “The Sacramento River’s salmon runs are an emblem of wild California and its mountain-born rivers.  The Winnemem Wintu Tribe has long fought to save these fish, which are central to their culture, and to restore health to the waters they need to thrive.  But it has been an uphill battle.  Much of the Tribe’s homeland was drowned by Shasta Dam, and the salmon’s access to the cold, clean spawning grounds above the dam, to which they had returned for eons, was blocked.  Plans to raise the dam and to pump even more fresh water out of the Sacramento River via the governor’s proposed giant tunnels could doom the salmon, already perilously close to extinction.  The dam raise would also drown much of what’s left of the Tribe’s homeland.  Earthjustice is proud to have represented the Tribe in many of its legal battles to save and restore the salmon.  On behalf of the Tribe and its allies, we will continue to fight for the day when wild salmon again spawn in the headwaters of the Sacramento.”

In written testimony submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board, for the ongoing hearings regarding the Bureau of Reclamation’s and the Department of Water Resource’s water diversion change petition regarding the California WaterFix, Winnemem Wintu Governmental Liaison Gary Mulcahy asks,

“Drowned cultures, dead and extinct fish, broken promises, stolen lands, environmental destruction, water grabs, and years and years of litigation – is it truly worth it?

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