A few miles east of Mt. Shasta, in an area called Coonrod Flat, a McCloud River tributary called Ash Creek winds its way through this uplands meadow, which is dotted with ponderosa pines and incense cedars. Here is the site of an annual gathering, known as the Coonrod Ceremony, far older than the State of California. The ceremony is hosted by a band of Wintu people known as the Winnemem, who, in their own language, are called the “Middle Water People.”
This year, the gathering took place against a backdrop of environmental catastrophe and social turmoil. California is in the throes of its worst drought in at least 100 years. Anthropogenic climate change is almost certainly a strong factor contributing to this parched state of affairs. The year 2014 has been the hottest on record on Planet Earth, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed last week. So, too, has it been the hottest on record in California.
The Coonrod gathering brought together roughly 300 people from around the globe, including Indigenous people from New Zealand, Hawaii, Mexico, and numerous US regions. These Indigenous people share a spiritual, cultural, and political affinity with the Winnemem's struggle for cultural survival. Several non-Indigenous people also took part.
The theme of the ceremony: the relationship between fire (epitomized by the sun) and water are out of whack and need help returning to balance.
A few days prior to the ceremony, one of Mt. Shasta's ancient glaciers — a glacier that might be roughly as old as the Winnemem Wintu culture itself — fissured and split. In sliding down the mountain, it caused a significant landslide. For as far back as the Winnemem's cultural memory can recall, Ash Creek has run clear during the Coonrod ceremony. This year, the creek ran brown with glacier-induced erosion. The water's texture and appearance was akin to chocolate milk.
A little over a month later, on Sept. 21st, 2014, more than 300,000 people filled the streets of New York City to call for United States action on climate change. As the march proceeded through downtown Manhattan this past Sunday, another major change was underway on Shasta's southeastern flank: Konwakiton Glacier gave way, about midway up the 14,179-foot peak. The resulting mudflow caused National Weather Service officials to issue a flash-flood watch as debris clogged two roads in the town of McCloud.
“The ice has been exposed [to the sun] for just a very long time,” US Forest Service Hydrologist Steve Bachmann told the Redding Record Search-Light, referring to this year's lack of rain and cloud cover, and its overwhelming heat. For several years, climate change has been impelling the break-up of glaciers on mountain peaks and in frigid climates throughout the world. Now, the less-well-known glaciers of Northern California have, it seems, also begun to disappear.
Although California's enormous water system is not often a fixture of conversations concerning climate change, the California Energy Commission reports that water-related energy use in California also consumes approximately 20% of the state’s electricity, and 30% of the state’s non-power plant natural gas (i.e., natural gas not used to produce electricity).
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On the final day of the Coonrod gathering, having just finished leading a water-offering ceremony at one of the Winnemem's sacred springs near Shasta, Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk boarded a flight to Geneva, Switzerland. On August 12, she made a presentation to the United Nations’ 85th Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) regarding the US government’s label of “federally unrecognized tribe”, which has been applied to dozens of historical California tribes because they were not on the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs original list of “federally recognized” tribes in 1978.
Sisk was one of five Indigenous leaders from North America selected to present to the committee, which this year is investigating the US's record of compliance vis-a-vis the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which the Lyndon B. Johnson administration ratified in 1965, at the height of the US civil rights movement.
The CERD is one of few such international treaties the US has ratified. For instance, successive US administrations have refused to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Indigenous People. Along with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the US is only one of four nations that has failed to adopt this pillar of international human rights law. It is one of three countries that have so far rebuffed the US Convention on the Rights of the Child. In that case, the US is in the august company of Sudan and Somalia.
“They're probably regretting even signing the CERD right about now,” Sisk joked to me in a conversation last month.
As Sisk explained in her report to the Geneva Convention, the Winnemem culture has been locked in a triple vise for several decades. They are refused recognition by the federal government, thereby denying them social services and official political standing in official political affairs (to the US government, the Winnemem have no more standing than recreational boaters in matters concerning their river, for instance).
Meanwhile, roughly 90% of their traditional territory has been inundated by the 3.5 million acre-foot Shasta Reservoir, with the corresponding Shasta Dam having eliminated the salmon runs on which their culture has always relied. This keystone of the federal government's Central Valley Water Project has rendered it exceedingly difficult for the Winnemem to practice their traditional culture.
Moreover, many tribal members live in grinding poverty. Many homes on the Winnemem's 44-acre rancheria outside of Redding lack adequate plumbing: an absurd irony of California water politics.
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California's sprawling plumbing system — an unrivaled network of dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, siphons, tunnels, gates, and other water control structures — is based on a fundamental contradiction of geography. Roughly 75% of available water originates in the northern third of the state. But roughly 75% of water demand occurs in the southern two-thirds.
The resulting transfer of water from northern watersheds to southern ones is detrimental to some, beneficial for others. It has been a boon for California's uniquely water-intensive system of industrial agriculture. But it has been devastating for people and wildlife that depend on healthy fisheries. And few groups have been impacted to the same degree as the Winnemem Wintu people, who live in the enormous shadow of California's largest dam.
Yet, of all the groups and individuals advocating for restoration of the Sacramento River's once-mighty salmon runs, the Winnemem wield a remarkably powerful voice. As California now moves ahead with various watershed-damaging schemes to send still more water from Northern California to Southern California, the Winnemem have stood as some of the most important advocates for social justice and environmental sanity in the state.
Sisk's presentation to the United Nations was only part and parcel of the whirlwind schedule the traditional leader has maintained in the last several years, as the political challenges her people face have grown steadily more pressing. This year, she has presided over several multi-day ceremonies in her people's traditional landbase was the opening speaker (and certainly one of the most powerful) at the large “Don't Frack California” rally at the State Capitol this past March. As she jokes, she is also frequently the only ethnic woman who appears at public water meetings at California's State Capitol building. She has even found room in her schedule to speak twice in Ukiah. All the while, she works full-time as a counselor for inmates at Corcoran State Prison in Sacramento. And these are only a selection of her 2014 engagements.
For Sisk, the urgency of the situation could hardly be greater. Earlier this year, Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) — seizing on concerns regarding California's lack of adequate water storage to maintain business as usual — introducing a bill to the US Congress that would invest $4.5 billion in raising Shasta Dam an additional 19 feet.
Doing so would flood thousands of additional acres of the Trinity-Shasta National Forest and an estimated 49 Winnemem sacred sites. This act, which Sisk and other tribal members have termed “cultural genocide” would, for the Winnemem, “essentially end our ability to practice our culture and religion,” she says.
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In their effort to prevent the dam raise, the Winnemem are up against are some of the most intractable foes ever to reside within California's power structure: the state's water lords. Arguably California's two most powerful water districts, the Westlands Water District on the west side of Fresno County and the Kern County Water Agency at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley, both regard the Shasta Dam raise as one of their greatest priorities. The following story helps illustrate both the Winnemem's remarkable role in California water and the power they are up against.
In 2003, US Sen. Dianne Feinstein (a great champion of the aforementioned water agencies) introduced legislation to fast-track feasibility studies related to three methods of expanding California’s water storage capacity, including the raising of Shasta Dam. In response, Sisk says she was directed by ancestors in the spirit world to conduct a traditional war dance, the first by her people since 1887 — the height of the Ghost Dance era among California and other Western States native nations. Asserting that the Shasta Dam is the Weapon of Mass Destruction that has most damaged Winnemem culture, she chose September 11, 2004 as the date of the war dance.
As the war dance was about to begin, the Winnemem got word that Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) was preparing to introduce legislation to restore their federal tribal recognition — something they had long sought. The Winnemem were asked to cancel or postpone the war dance, to avoid attracting negative attention or arousing the wrath of politicians who favored raising the dam. But political compromise could not interfere with their spiritual beliefs, and the war dance went on.
During the dance, Feinstein and Barbara Boxer presided over the passage of legislation that funded $395 million in studies on increasing California’s water storage infrastructure, including raising Shasta Dam. On the fourth day of the dance, word came that Campbell would remove the language recognizing the Winnemem from his proposed technical amendment legislation. But the dance was completed and was reported in media around the world, including the New York Times.
Soon after, then-President George W. Bush signed the bill into law. The Sacramento Bee quoted Feinstein at the time: “I believe it is a God-given right as Californians to be able to water gardens and lawns. The state… is going to need new water storage.”
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Ten years following this Winnemem War Dance, which I described in more detail last week, federal and state lawmakers and California business leaders are pushing for the largest dam- and canal-building binge since the State Water Project of the 1960s and ’70s.
At the top of the list, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build two giant tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to siphon water from the Sacramento River — the Winnemem Wintu's watershed, by extension — to the pumps that feed the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal already transport more than five million acre-feet a year southward on average. The cost of the project is said to be $25 billion, but the total bill, with interest, would be more like $60 billion.
The principal users of delta diversions are the Westlands Water District on the west side of Fresno County and the Kern County Water Agency at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley. These water wholesalers buy it from the state and federal governments, then sell it to California's largest agribusinesses. Water exports are for profits, not people.
UC Berkeley Emeritus Professor of Geography Richard Walker wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year: “Farming Westlands is a bad bargain for California. The area has too little groundwater and makes too little profit to pay for irrigation water… Worse, it has a severe problem of toxic metals in the drain water. Nor are its crops vital foodstuffs, being principally almonds for snacks, flavorings and beauty products. The land should go back to grazing.”
But the incredibly wasteful Delta Drains are just the spear tip for various other water infrastructure proposals. This past March, liberal Democrat John Garamendi joined with a Republican counterpart, Doug Le Malfa, to introduce a US House of Representatives bill that would underwrite construction of Sites Reservoir. At a cost of roughly $3.9 billion, two large dams, each around 310 feet high, would be constructed on the Sacramento River. The water would be ferried through the Tehama-Colusa and Glen-Colusa canals, as well as a third canal that be built specifically for the project and originate north of Colusa. All of the water would end up in the Antelope Valley, located just east of Mendocino National Forest, about 10 miles west of the small town of Maxwell on Interstate 5.
The 1.8 million acre-foot reservoir would be about five times larger than the last huge reservoir constructed in California, Lake Sonoma, which the Army Corps of Engineers completed in 1982. It would be the seventh largest reservoir in California. Its initial filling would drown an estimated 14,000 acres of grassland, oak woodland, chaparral, riparian habitat, vernal pools, and wetlands (including 19 acres of rare alkali wetlands), not to mention all of the critters that call these areas home.
“One perfectly legal diversion scenario could take up to 67 percent of the average flow of the Sacramento River 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.”
Caleen Sisk sees the Shasta Dam raise as a necessary component of either the Sites Reservoir or the Delta Drains, being that it would increase water storage upstream of each.
In 2007, Westlands Water District — headquartered roughly 300 miles away — paid roughly $33 million to purchase 3,000 acres on the McCloud River above Shasta Dam. Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham said the district, which supplies water to some 600 farms in the San Joaquin Valley, bought the land to protect its interests along the river and around Lake Shasta.
“We did not want to see the use of this land to be changed to impede the potential of raising the dam,” he told the Redding Record Searchlight in 2007.
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The Winnemem's lack of federal recognition is particularly telling given their longer-term history of recognition by the US government. In 1851, Winnemem representatives signed the Cottonwood Treaty with US federal government treaty agent, which called for a 35-square-mile Wintu reservation. The US Congress refused to ratify the treaty.
In 1875, the federal government's unique level of interest in exploiting the Winnemem's waters for its own ends began when President Ulysses Grant set aside 280 acres of Winnemem land on the McCloud River for the government's first fish hatchery established for salmon breeding.
Yet, somehow, the federal government has persisted in denying the Winnemem their recognition. Journalist Marc Dadigan, who regularly chronicles the Winnemem's struggles, wrote an in-depth piece about the subject in January 2012 for the Center For Investigative Reporting's California Watch web site, which was entitled “Without federal recognition, tribe struggles to protect sacred sites.”
Much of the exploitation of the Winnemem's traditional landbase has been carried out by individuals who have been instrumental to Mendocino County history — a testament to the dynamic nature of capitalism, the tendency of its greatest beneficiaries to engage in the great feast of plundering and conquering, then reinvest their riches in other ventures, even in altogether different industries.
In 1896, San Francisco-based timber merchants and real estate capitalists William Van Arsdale and George T. Scott formed the Scott-Van Arsdale Lumber Company, later renamed the McCloud River Lumber Company, a long-running outfit later purchased by the multi-national corporation Champion International Corporation. They proceeded to despoil the Winnemem's aboriginal resources in mass quantity: the ponderosa pine, sugar pine, and cedar groves throughout the McCloud River watershed. At its peak, the company owned 600,000 acres of McCloud River lands. During the Van Arsdale-Scott era, the company had two sawmill plants and a box factory, each with a capacity of 100,000,000 feet annually.
In 1898, Overland Monthly described the sugar pines thus: “the quality is unsurpassed, producing a lumber that commands the highest market price for every description of finishing required in building.” The ponderosas went south to serve as box crates for Southern California's massive fruit industry. The far-reaching ecological and economic networks of the Southern California fruit industry, which required hundreds of millions of board feet a year of timber.
Van Arsdale and Scott sold their holdings to a Minnesota-based timber firm in 1904. They promptly reinvested their riches here in Mendocino County. Incorporated under the Snow Mountain Irrigation and Power, their biggest early venture was construction of the 96-foot-high Van Arsdale Dam on the mainstem Eel River, as well as a tunnel through a mountain that allows water diversion into the Eel River. Thus was born the Potter Valley project, which impounds up to 95% of the mainstem Eel’s flow at a give time. The electricity generated by the hydroelectric allowed the company to sell electricity in bulk to the City of Ukiah, where Van Arsdale had considerable real estate interests. The same company built Scott Dam, which forms Lake Pillsbury, completing it in 1923.
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From my home in westside Ukiah, I peer east through the east-facing window of my small writing office. My gaze inevitably fixes on the chaparral-covered slopes of Cow Mountain, so named for the Spanish-introduced longhorn cattle that naturalized there in the 1800s. Though hot and dry, these mountains cradle much of the water destined for the Upper Russian River channel, releasing a surprising amount of moisture year-round from a network of springs and seeps, glades and canyons.
Much of this water is destined for the corduroy-like grape rows that span from Ukiah to Healdsburg and beyond. Owing to the Sonoma County Water Agency's far-flung water system, some of it ultimately waters suburbs such as Novato and Petaluma.
The waters that drain from the opposite side of Cow Mountain, though, are even more reflective of the far-ranging ecological and economic networks that define the State of California. These eastern slopes drain into Scott Creek, thence Clear Lake (the oldest natural lake in California), which has as its sole outlet Cache Creek: a tributary to the Sacramento River.
Here, the Cow Mountain water (although little of it makes that far anymore, and it may take years to get there) thus enters the largest and most politically contested of all California waterways. It is the waterway at the center of Jerry Brown's titanic tunnels and corollary schemes like the Shasta Dam raise: expensive fixes that does not treat the real problems.
In a context of melting glaciers, soaring temperatures, and epic drought, many people in the US have been united in the past week in telling their government that business as usual cannot continue. Here in California, business as usual means enormous, energy-intensive water exports.
One of the most important voices is that of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, with its insights into the need to restore the balance between fire and water throughout the world.