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California Tribes Push Back on Water Issues

California Tribal Policy Advisor Anecita Agustinez explains how Native American communities are impacted by some of the state’s most pressing water issues.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Implementation of California's groundwater law is a big focus for the state's tribal communities.Chris Austin

Anecita Agustinez has a unique job at a California state agency ­– she dedicates 100 percent of her time to Native American tribal issues. Her position as tribal policy advisor for the Department of Water Resources was created in 2013 following Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2011 implementation of Executive Order B-10-11, which required state agencies to develop consultation policies with Tribes.

Prior to Brown’s administration, tension had grown in tribal communities over the Marine Life Protection Act. “[State agencies] went through the whole process of how they look at protecting marine life and resources along the coast, and no one had thought to talk to the Tribes who live on the coast, who harvest from the coast, who maintain cultural and spiritual significance from that coastal environment,” said Agustinez.

The Tribes were not consulted during the creation of the policy, she said, and as a result, the coastal Tribes saw their access curtailed to areas used for traditional fishing and harvesting as well as cultural and spiritual renewal.

Eventually, the state agencies heard the concerns of California’s Native American communities and included those concerns in the Marine Life Protection Act. Still, the Brown administration has sought to do better.

Brown’s executive order created the Office of the Tribal Advisor, headed by Cynthia Gomez. The Department of Water Resources operates under the California Natural Resources Agency, which Agustinez advises on tribal concerns. Agustinez provides further tribal consultation on varied departmental issues, such as the State Water Project, drought impacts, California Water Fix, Delta levy issues, funding and access to the Proposition 1 water bond and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Water Deeply recently spoke with Agustinez about issues facing tribal communities today in California.

Water Deeply: What water issues are most pressing for Tribes right now?

Anecita Agustinez: Right now it would be access to state funds – the Proposition 1 water bond funding. Tribes are following it very closely.

It is a whole new game for Tribes because it’s the first time in any type of water history when some of their concerns were totally reviewed and looked at.

Previously, Tribes haven’t had access to state funds because they are not a water agency (as defined by the water code); therefore, they weren’t eligible to receive state funds. But Proposition 1 allows for Tribes to be a direct applicant and eligible entity for its funding.

It’s my position that we want to make sure that if there are good tribal projects out there to be funded, that they get looked at. We are working on how to make sure Tribes understand that and are able to work collaboratively with their local water agencies and their funding regions in their surrounding areas.

Water Deeply: How have Tribes reacted to California Water Fix and the plan for the Delta?

Agustinez: California Water Fix affects Tribes’ ancestral territorial use and cultural resources. There are tribal concerns that ground disturbance [from building the tunnels and related infrastructure] may impact sacred sites or cultural areas.

We are doing a series of consultations at the department with Tribes who may have an interest in that – not only on California Water Fix, but on Delta levy issues, too. The area is very significant for a lot of California Tribes – not only Tribes with traditional boundary areas, but Tribes throughout the state because it is a historical natural confluence area for travel, trade and resources.

The consultations will ensure cultural resources will remain protected.

Water Deeply: What has been the reaction to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)?

Agustinez: SGMA is a very big and complicated issue for all of California and for California’s tribal governments. Out of the 127 basins that SGMA is addressing that are classified as high and medium priority, there are probably 40 percent on tribal lands.

It’s not mandatory for Tribes to participate, however, in order to have 100 percent sustainability in groundwater basins, all stakeholders, all tribal entities and governments ideally should be in a collaborative state with the formation of groundwater sustainability agencies and creating groundwater sustainability plans.

But how do you actually get there and make bridges over years and years of mistrust of agencies or local authorities making water decisions without engaging their tribal neighbors?

The key would be to develop a collaborative process between Tribes and the local water agencies and the agencies that are forming groundwater sustainability agencies. Groundwater sustainability agencies must be formed by June of next year and most local water agencies and other local authorities have not established a history of cooperative or collaborative processes of working with Tribes in their areas of jurisdiction.

At the Department of Water Resources, we are trying to get to that point through working with Tribes and creating a Tribal Advisory Group, which has provided technical advisory information and serves as a conduit for messaging these important issues and concerns.

What we’ve done at the Department of Water Resources is a series of meetings and workshops over the last two years explaining to Tribes, first their options to participate or not participate in a statewide policy that will likely affect their groundwater basins. And second, the pros and cons of participating and if they choose to participate what would be the best steps for engagement and how to reach that collaborative process.

I think following the formation of groundwater sustainability agencies is important to see if these big water agencies are just going to do the status quo regardless of whether it’s a new law or not. Will they work only with the usual stakeholders and not engage underrepresented groups that should be engaged with? There is a tendency to say “new rules, same players” and “new program, same results.” I’d hate to see that happen.

SGMA is going to be the biggest concern to Tribes. It’s water policy management over the next 20 years that has to be looked at, and it’s a great opportunity to understand that you can’t be independent on some of these water issues. Water doesn’t have boundaries – it’s going to flow through tribal and non-tribal lands.

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