Affirm Tribal Water Rights to Help Fix California’s Manmade Drought

Caleen Sisk

Droughts have long been a part of California’s history, and the Winnemem Wintu have songs about the water trails drying up and our need to pray for them to fill up again. For the Winnemem, it wasn’t necessarily a “drought” if there were long periods without rain because, more often than not, the rivers would still be full to keep the trees, the beavers, the mountain meadows and everything healthy in the watershed.

That’s why we think this much-ballyhooed drought is a not a natural disaster, but a man-made one. It’s the end result of the past 150 years of the destruction of our lands, water management based on greedy motives, and the suppression of the water rights of California tribes.

I believe this is one of the biggest misconceptions about the so-called drought. President Obama and the state agencies want to put the blame on climate change and note the lack of rain. Industrial agriculture tycoons want to blame fish and environmental “extremists” who are daring to support adequate water for fisheries and ecosystems. 

 In reality, this is what happens when you clear-cut the trees, kill all the beavers, and murder the wolves. This is what happens when you dam the rivers until they choke and build giant pumps to move water to the desert to grow almonds and pistachios that are exported to China and abroad. They systemically eradicated Mother Earth’s plan that had California’s water system working so perfectly. Now drought is measured by a high water mark on a reservoir instead of the strength of the rivers.

 Then instead of trying to use technology to mimic nature or trying to invest in restoration, they resort to building more plumbing like Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build the $52 billion tunnels that will divert even more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California. 
About 80 percent of California’s water goes to agriculture, including many of the ag-farms outside Fresno that President Obama visited last week, and much of the water from the Delta will go to these farms that are causing toxic selenium pollution. The land is telling them it’s spent, time for planting in the desert is over, but they’re refusing to listen.

 Instead, they want to drain the largest estuary on the Pacific coast. It is this estuary that is the center of the salmon’s life cycle and home to many important fish and creatures. We have forgotten that California is a natural salmon state, and that it was a government decision, not a natural one, to destroy the salmon to make California into an artificial agricultural state.

 They did this by building huge dams like the Shasta Dam that flooded our homeland and by diverting water to the desert to grow crops that they claim “feed America.” Who lives off pistachios? On my budget, that might as well be someone saying growing caviar feeds America!

 Ever since salmon became an endangered species, the corporate agriculture tycoons and the rich, powerful water districts have complained the government is giving water to “fish” over “farmers.”

 Of course, no one bothered to consider our tribal rights when the government took our land, killed our salmon runs and flooded our homes so they could give everything to these farmers. The discussion is always framed as the rights of farmers versus the rights of fish, but what about our water rights? 

 We, the tribes, should have the “first in time, first in use” water rights that allow us to benefit from all these projects in our river, and should allow us to have a voice in what is happening to California’s water.

 For the past few years, I have been attending numerous meetings organized by Gov. Brown and other state agencies to get tribal input on water. Whenever I ask about adjudicating tribal water rights, they say, “Oh, I’m not the right person for that” or “we’re not the right agency for that.” Someday, I would like to know “who” the right person is to adjudicate our tribal water rights. Clearly, they are just talking to us to check off the “tribal consultation” box on their to-do list. Would the farmers or the water districts ever engage in talking about the governor’s Delta Tunnels plan or state water bond if they didn’t know what their water rights were? I doubt it. What are the water rights of the California Indians?

The drought is not an act of nature – it’s a sign that California needs to drastically restructure its water system and how it acknowledges water rights. Currently, Big Ag is complaining they aren’t receiving the water they’ve already paid for. How ludicrous is it that people can buy “paper water” that doesn’t exist yet, and then complain when it’s not there? 

Now that it’s clear that we need drastic change, it’s a good time to finally address these age-old injustices around tribal water rights. Tribes deserve some benefits from the water projects that have already been built, and we deserve a stronger say in how water is allocated and stored. If tribes are given a real place at the decision-makers’ table, we can help guide California’s water system back to a place where we can withstand a few years with low rainfall. Trees, wolves, beavers, delta smelt, salmon and a beautiful estuary are necessary for California’s healthy water system.

We will continue to sing our songs and to pray for water. But our “water rights” and our knowledge must be affirmed, not only for the sake of justice, but for the future of California waters and our sacred ways.

Caleen Sisk is the Spiritual Leader and Traditional Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who practice their traditional culture and ceremonies in their territory along the McCloud River watershed in Northern California. She maintains the cultural and religious traditions of the tribe and advocates for California salmon restoration, the human right to water, and protection of indigenous sacred sites. She is leading her tribe’s efforts to work with Maori allies and federal fish biologists to return wild Chinook salmon home on the Winnemem Waywaket (McCloud River.)




Caleen Sisk is the Spiritual Leader and Traditional Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who practice their traditional culture and ceremonies in their territory along the McCloud River watershed in Northern California. Caleen maintains the cultural and religious traditions of the Tribe as well as advocates for California salmon restoration, the Human Right to Water and the protection of indigenous sacred sites. She is also currently leading her Tribe’s efforts to work with Maori allies and federal fish biologists to return wild Chinook salmon home on the Winnemem Waywaket (McCloud River).

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Two Bears Growling's picture
Sister of the People, I commend your plea to be heard & the common sense approach you speak of. However, many times it seems what is common sense makes no sense to these politicians who represent no one but big business & filling their pockets for retirement. With these type of people if it doesn't make dollars & cents then it doesn't make sense! It isn't just we native people who have been sold out, but all people have been sold out in North America by politicians & lawyers to mega-billion dollar corporations who souls have been sold all for greed. All the while Mother Earth is destroyed, torn to pieces & poisoned. No longer in many areas is the earth fertile for growing because it has been poisoned. No longer are our sources of good drinking water readily available. They have been depleted, used for pulling poisons out of the ground, wasted & is now good for nothing any longer. In so many places across Turtle Island even the very air we depend on to breathe has been poisoned ALL because of greedy factory owners & those they represent. Greed, egos & arrogance are destroying this entire planet faster than ever before. More will NEVER be enough for these wicked ones. They have a sickness of the spirit that is never healed. It consumes their entire being.
Two Bears Growling