Last year saw the hottest and driest year in California in over a century. Since 2000, many western U.S. states have endured what scientists refer to as a megadrought not seen since 1500. In May, California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom asked the state’s top water agency to accelerate the approvals process for the proposed Sites Reservoir, a $4 billion project built on the west side of the Sacramento Valley that would pull water from the Sacramento and Trinity rivers. Newsom touted the project as a drought solution and a way to manage water levels in dry and wet seasons, but critics contend that the reservoir plan runs roughshod over the needs of Indigenous tribes and could potentially worsen the already alarming effects of the drought.
A coalition led by Indigenous leaders from the Pit River, Hoopa Valley, Winnemem Wintu, Yurok, Karuk, Pomo, and Miwok Tribes, along with Indigenous scientists, and water protectors say that the Sites Reservoir is a continuation of the state’s original racist water policies, which prioritized dispossessing land from its Native stewards to fuel the economic interests of farmers and ranchers. Rather than manage water levels to prepare for climate impacts, the reservoir’s construction will likely exacerbate the very conditions of climate change that state officials argue it will protect against, like flooding, parched river beds, algal blooms, and other types of pollution.
“The Sites Reservoir is just another half-baked solution to these drought problems that don’t have solutions through settler-colonial policies,” said Brittani Orona, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in northwestern California, who has a Ph.D. in Native American studies and human rights from University of California, Davis. “Building a reservoir isn’t going to give us more water.”
The Sites Reservoir is funded by a combination of state and federal funds and largely benefits private agricultural firms based in the Central Valley, straddling Colusa, Glenn, Tehama, and Yolo counties. It would also likely justify the construction of the massive and ecologically disruptive Delta Conveyance Tunnel, which would transport water through industrial agricultural land and into southern parts of the state, says Regina Chichizola, executive director of Save California Salmon, a coalition trying to protect water and salmon species. The threat to the sovereignty of watersheds and traditional foods is a continuation of the cultural genocide Native tribes struggle against at the hands of the California government.
“Everything about Sites seems like a bad idea to me, from the environmental standpoint and from the clean drinking water standpoint,” Chichizola said.
The dam would cover nearly 14,000 acres of land, including sensitive grassland, woodland, and riparian habitat, posing a greater risk to dozens of endangered and threatened species, like salmon, smelt, and steelhead. And when the water sits in the reservoir, it’s likely to release methane, a toxic greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Moreover, once the water is trapped in the reservoir, not all of it will reach its intended destination, as some estimates say that more than 46,000 acre-feet of water could evaporate annually—on top of the 2 million acre-feet lost from the state’s existing reservoirs.
Jerry Brown, executive director of Sites Project Authority, said in an email that the reservoir would not divert water in the summer season and that, “Aside from excess conditions, the Sites water right will include conditions to protect all other water rights and environmental needs prior to initiating diversions into Sites Reservoir.” They also do not anticipate methane releases will constitute a “significant environmental effect” and anticipate evaporation, saying “it is not feasible to cover the reservoir of this type.”
Salmon are indicative of environmental health—and the salmon are not well
The Sites Reservoir is now entering the phase of environmental review and would be operational by 2030. Tribal scientists warn that the state’s proposal for the reservoir, which officials cite as a water management plan, would risk extinction for critically endangered species like Chinook salmon. Salmon are a keystone species, meaning that they balance every ecosystem, from forests to streams to oceans, and they battle nearly every climate impact, from ocean acidification, which dissolves their food source of mollusks, to warmer weather and water that bake salmon eggs before they can hatch, to forest fires that push debris into rivers and contribute to erosion and siltation.
Since 1990, the population of spring Chinook salmon has fallen below the level needed to sustain a standard of living for Native peoples, which is alarming as their population numbers are an indication of an ecosystem’s health. Experts suspect that the severity of the drought is partially to blame.
“Think how close we are to losing them completely,” Keith Parker, a senior fisheries and molecular biologist for the Yurok Tribe of California, said. “We’re in a pretty serious situation. What people don’t understand is once these genetic strains are gone, they can never come back. You can’t create them in a lab.”
Brown said the Sites Project Authority has been engaged in “ongoing coordination with Tribes who are culturally associated with the region where the proposed project would be sited.”
But ecologists are adamant that altering the natural flow of a complex water system that includes lakes, streams, rivers, and marshes further throws the environment off balance.
“If there was supposed to be a reservoir there, then nature would have put one there,” Parker said.
As drought conditions worsen, so too will its impacts. The Sites Reservoir will divert water from other rivers—as much as 100,000 acre-feet of water during drought years, which Brown said would be feasible given that their models “show there can be very wet periods during dry years.”
For salmon, water flow is directly linked with species health, and severe water shortages in rivers where the fish breed create ripe conditions for Ceratonova shasta, a pathogen that killed 97% of young salmon in spring 2021. And as saltwater intrusion into the Delta is likely to increase, it will contaminate the supply of drinking water to 27 million Californians—almost 70% of the state’s residents.
“If the salmon don’t have clean water, neither do the people,” Chichizola said.
Despite the current environmental harms that would be exacerbated by the reservoir’s construction, proponents of the project claim that the reservoir itself would mitigate impacts of climate change. They also boast that the reservoir will create “environmental water” benefiting “native fish and Pacific Flyway habitat for migratory birds and other native species.” The reservoir website claims that the build is “environmentally beneficial,” and “will capture excess water from major storms and save it for drier periods.”
In the Klamath Basin, 92% of households suffer from food insecurity, making salmon populations a lifeline for tribes, including the Yurok Tribe, one of California’s largest tribes. But salmon are much more than sustenance. While a dietary staple for Hoopa peoples, salmon’s importance reaches beyond their ability to nourish. To Native peoples and allies, it’s a reciprocal relationship that remains under threat of colonialist attempts to manipulate the environment, regardless of the potential damage.
“Salmon are very much a part of who we are,” Orona said. “They feed us and we protect them.”
Water rights, a colonial history
Much of the fight over water comes down to the state’s first water rights system, dubbed “first in time, first in right,” in which settlers could claim water by pinning a declaration to a nearby tree. Starting in 1848 when the gold rush and subsequent land grabs began, and codified by California law after the state was established in 1850, claims to water were only available to white settlers, land surveyors, and those hoping to make their fortunes off of gold, Beth Rose Middleton Manning, a professor of Native American studies at UC Davis, told the podcast, West Coast Water Justice.
The mid-20th century was a boon for building water projects, often at the expense of Indigenous tribes. The California Bureau of Reclamation built 355 storage reservoirs, 15,000 miles of canals, 1,333 miles of pipelines, and 275 miles of tunnels, according to University of Colorado Law School’s Charles F. Wilkinson. At least 100,000 miles of canals divert rivers to irrigation and artificially constructed ponds, lakes, and reservoirs that hold nearly 300 million acre feet of water. These networks are now known as the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, which deliver water to agricultural land and municipalities. Additionally, the state and its largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), have a long history of flooding Native land to create dams and reservoirs to serve the agriculture industry that the state is now known for, most infamously flooding the Mountain Maidu ancestral homeland, some of which was returned in summer 2021. Now, the dams create hydroelectric power, and PG&E retains the water rights and owns the majority of the ancestral land.
Orona says that the state’s water projects are colonial projects, noting how the genocide against Native peoples occurred simultaneously with the inception of the state and manipulation of its waterways.
“That’s a violence against Native people because we so strongly see ourselves in the places that we’re from,” Orona said. “[California’s] water policy is a form of violence against us.”
The State Water Board has even acknowledged this reality, saying in a 2021 resolution that “white supremacy led to the genocide and forced relocation of Native American people to facilitate white resettlement and the enslavement of Native American and Black people for white economic gain.” The resolution goes on to say that Native peoples “still grapple with the lasting effects of historical racial inequities stemming from those governmental decisions and policies.” The State Water Board said in an email that it is currently developing an “action plan” for these goals.
While the resolution commits to centering Indigenous peoples, partnering with tribes in decision making and prioritizing “access to surface waters that support subsistence fishing,” the potential construction of Sites Reservoir flies in the face of these goals. Without access to traditional homelands, Native tribes count on waterways and their ecosystems not just for sustenance, but for cultural, ceremonial, and spiritual practice. Orona said that the Trinity River, the largest tributary of the Klamath River, whose water is diverted into the Whiskeytown Dam and regulated by the Trinity River Dam, serves as the site for ceremonial dance. Some dances are even practiced on the water itself.
Today, the vast majority of California’s dams are at least 50 years old and require updates to address crumbling infrastructure that’s not built to handle floods and earthquakes. The water standards are similarly outdated—they were last updated in 1955, decades before the bout of severe droughts and first major push by climate scientists warning of global climate change. Essentially, the already tenuous tribal access to existing waterways is now further threatened by the same structures and systems that the state used to justify its seizure and use of Indigenous lands.
According to Morning Star Gali, a member of the Pit River Tribe and a tribal water organizer for Save California Salmon, it’s insulting how the state continues to ignore the requests of local Indigenous peoples and the concerns of Indigenous youth preparing for an adulthood defined by capitalism and climate change. If policymakers were to listen to Indigenous youth and hold them in the same regard as the climate scientists, Indigenous stewards of their traditional homelands could create plans for water restoration, Gali says. Traditional Ecological Knowledge, otherwise known as TEK, refers to tribally specific cultural practices for land stewardship that support an ecosystem’s health and allow it to recover from systemic degradation.
“I don’t see how diverting water and desecrating sacred sites is good for climate change,” Gali said. “That is not a mitigation strategy.”
The State Water Board said in an email to Prism that it was “obligated to consult with California Native American Tribes regarding potential impacts to tribal resources during development of their California Environmental Quality Act analysis for the project.” Records show that 14 Tribes were contacted no more than twice, with two tribes requesting a consultation or further information.
California prioritizes private industry over public good
Despite the ongoing drought and much needed updates to existing water infrastructure, state officials are pushing through a plan that flies in the face of state law. Kate Poole, a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been working in solidarity with tribes organizing against the Sites Reservoir, said that in theory, state law mandates that two legal doctrines—the principle of reasonable use and the public trust doctrine—undergird water management. In theory, water management should prioritize what would best serve the interests of the public. In practice, the public good isn’t given priority over the needs of agricultural interests because of the industry’s political sway, she said.
“The people who own senior water rights are very powerful, and it’s just difficult to reduce any of their water usage,” Poole said.
This means that instead of addressing the root cause of drought and water mismanagement, the governor has proposed that municipalities urge individual residents to curb water consumption. This tactic won’t address the needs of at least 1 million Californians who already lack access to clean water; neither will the Sites Reservoir. What the state proposes is a superficial solution—and not really a solution at all, Poole says. Eighty percent of water consumed in California is agricultural, with the remaining 20% going to urban areas, like the Bay Area and Los Angeles County.
“Even if all urban uses stopped tomorrow, we’re still not even anywhere,” Poole said.
Case in point: Stuart and Lynda Rae Resnick, the “richest farmers” in the country who donated $250,000 to help Newsom defeat his recall election in 2021, have an almond and pistachio crop worth $3 billion and use 80 billion gallons of water per year on their nut trees—enough water to last San Francisco’s residents almost six years.
Poole says that mitigating drought impacts requires systemic change, starting with the creation of a drought plan, which doesn’t currently exist. A robust, science-based plan could help lay the foundation for water system recovery rather than continue to overdraft waterways, which can lead to low water flow and higher water temperatures. Rivers that don’t recover from the previous drought get hammered again, and in drought years, the state water board can approve petitions by state and federal agencies to pull amounts of water out of watersheds beyond what’s normally recommended, which increases salinity and prolongs drought conditions.
Each drought season, the governor declares a drought “emergency,” which affords some water regulatory powers, but largely reacts to drought impacts without getting at drought causes. After the state’s severe droughts in the late 2000s into the 2010s, Poole says that the NRDC and other advocates pushed the California Department of Water Resources, the governor’s office, and the State Water Board to create a plan, but their calls “were just ignored.” Even back in 2014, when reflecting on the state’s most recent drought, White House science advisor John Holdren said, “The problem in California is not that we don’t have enough reservoirs. The problem is that there’s not enough water in them … It wouldn’t help to build any more.”
The environmental consequences of ignoring the warnings of local tribes can already be seen in how fire-prone anti-Native policies have made the land. Wildfires have become more frequent and destructive with each passing year, largely because state law forbade Native peoples from conducting traditional and cultural burns, which help replenish the soil and ensure that there’s less fuel for unintended fires. In March 2022, Newsom formally asked for Native tribes’ help in conducting cultural burns for state-wide fire management.
California’s approach to water conservation now faces similar stakes, with Native tribes and other marginalized communities yet again at risk of paying the price for settler policies that rely on forcing the land to serve the needs of industry.
“We’re not allowed to practice our Indigenous science and values of water restoration and salmon restoration,” Gali said. “Now we’re in these very dire situations that we see the extermination of the salmon populations, the rampant wildfires, and drought because the priority is not a sustainable ecosystem, the priority is Big Ag in California.”