The Environmental Protection Agency has launched an investigation into whether discriminatory practices by the California State Water Resources Control Board contributed to the rapid environmental decline of a large watershed. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, a complaint was filed by several Native tribes and environmental justice groups this past December, accusing the board of “discriminatory practices and mismanagement contributing to the ecological deterioration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.” 

The groups filing the complaint include non-profit organizations Little Manila Rising and Restore the Delta along with community advocacy group Save California Salmon. They are joined by the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians and the Winnemen Wintu Tribe in accusing the water board of allegedly violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in programs that receive federal financial assistance. 

A letter from the EPA addressed to California State Water Resources Control Board Executive Director Eileen Sobeck claims that the board’s “failure to update Bay-Delta water quality standards” discriminates against Native American, Black, Asian and Latino residents in and around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed, particularly in the South Stockton community. 

“Furthermore, the complaint alleges that the Board has intentionally excluded local Native Tribes and Black, Asian and Latino residents from participation in the policymaking process associated with the Bay-Delta Plan,” read part of the EPA’s letter. 

A map view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (OpenStreetMap)

The original complaint claims that the alleged discriminatory policies are affecting Native tribes especially hard. 

“The State Water Board’s failures to maintain California Water Association-compliant water quality standards have disproportionately harmed Native tribes by impairing tribes’ access to fish, riparian resources and waterways essential to their sustenance, ceremony, religion and identity,” the complaint said.  

Water quality standards for the watershed were adopted in 1995 but were last updated in 2006. According to the groups, a review is supposed to be conducted every three years. 

The discrimination complaint comes a year after a $2.6 billion deal was agreed between California officials, the federal government and major water suppliers to strengthen the deteriorating ecosystem.