Save California Salmon advocates for the species and clean water rights

Salmon during the opening day of the November 2019 Nimbus Fish Hatchery ladder during the fall-run Chinook Salmon (Photo by Steve Martarano)

By Keyshawn Davis

Commercial and recreational salmon fishing off the coast of California was banned for the second year in a row in April due to low numbers of salmon. The Chinook salmon, which enter the Sacramento River system on four runs throughout the year, have been declining for decades due to pollution, water management, dams and drought.

With salmon decreasing and fishing off the California coast banned, Save California Salmon is dedicated to helping restore and protect salmon and rivers.

Save California Salmon is a nonprofit organization built on creating community power around water issues in Northern California while also working to save salmon through advocacy for policy change. The organization is run by Native American people from California and has an entirely Indigenous board.

According to Executive Director Regina Chichizola, the organization began in 2017 and was born out of the movement to remove the current dam on the Klamath River. SCS works to advocate for salmon through public testimony, rallies, education nights, and other measures related to the importance of saving the species and supporting tribes. It also developed its own free curriculum on environmental and Native American issues for schools from kindergarten to 8th grade, according to Chichizola. 

“Our main areas of focus are environmental policy, community organizing and then education,” Chichizola said. “We’re also really into training and as much community power building as we can. We really want to work with people to help restore their watersheds and protect the drinking water, and restore salmon.”

An outdated system

The water rights system in California is based on colonization, Chichizola said. California still has the same water rights system as it did in 1914, and Chichizola said the majority of the state’s water rights are in the hands of wealthy white landowners. This outdated water rights system, she says, negatively impacts tribes, farmworkers and the salmon, among others who do not have access to water rights.

“Can you imagine if any other justice-based laws were based in 1914?” Chichizola said. “That was the time before a woman could vote or Native people were considered citizens. But that’s still the water rights system we have and that impacts all people that need clean water, which is all people.”

Roughly 30 million residents in California get their drinking water from the state’s two biggest rivers, the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River, which turn into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which then flow into the Pacific Ocean. These two rivers also supply water to more than 6 million farmlands and are home to 55 different fish species, including salmon.

Chichizola said saving salmon is important to tribal communities and the state’s fishing fleet. She said salmon is an indicator species of the watershed’s health. “If the salmon cannot live in this water, this isn’t safe because there’s too much pollution, too much salinity, too hot, full of toxic algae, that’s going to impact every single person who gets their drinking water supply out of the system, which is millions and millions of Californians,” she said.

Kasil Willie, in front of the Sacramento River at Miller Regional Park, serves as the staff attorney for California Save Salmon and sometimes acts as the organization’s policy director. (Photo by Keyshawn Davis)

According to Chichizola, dams, pollution and a lack of water are among the main issues endangering salmon. She said flow diversions are also a threat because “too many diversions, specifically to agriculture cities, only use about 20% of the developed water in California, and big agriculture uses about 80%.”

Chichizola said one of SCS’s big goals is changing the education system to ensure the curriculum is more representative of the people being taught. Another goal is removing antiquated dams that are no longer needed for power generation or water use, and controlling pollution entering the watersheds so that everyone can have clean water.

“We want better land management,” Chichizola said. “We want to fight climate change, then we want to restore the rivers as much as we possibly can and that’s where the school and education part comes in.”

Teaching traditional knowledge

SCS offers two curriculums, the Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Science and Management curriculum and the Water Advocacy and Protection in Native California curriculum, which were created for school systems. (California has an ethnic studies law that was passed in 2021 that says high schools must offer ethnic studies courses in the 2025-26 school year.) 

Philip Albers is SCS’s director of education and oversees the organization’s educational staff. He said his job is to help shape the curriculum and academic support materials SCS creates for school systems. 

“For the most part, I think it’s a really great curriculum set,” Albers said. “We’re basically presenters who are Native or local to the area, and experts in their fields are recorded helping to teach that lesson.”

Albers emphasized that TEK is not just a matter of information or material. “It’s not just about a teepee, or a bow and arrow, or understanding that if Native Americans traditionally use fire to manage landscape,” Albers said. “It’s about understanding that whole inclusive component, about the mindset and the perspective that the Indigenous people held, and still do hold within the context of existence here, and relationship with the land that they are living on.” 

Albers said that salmon is an integral component of the curriculum. 

“There’s a very complex interwoven process and context around the salmon, especially for the California tribes,” Albers said. “It’s about the entire ecosystem, relying on that fish for so many other components whether that’s by eating them or how it contributes to the other components that eat the salmon.”

Advocating for tribal-water issues

Photo by Steve Martarano

In addition to having its own curriculum, SCS has an attorney on its staff who does community outreach, tables at events and provides education on water issues at the federal and state levels in Sacramento.

Kasil Willie, a tribal member enrolled in the Walker River Paiute Tribe from Nevada, is SCS’s staff attorney. She said a major part of her work is legal and policy work, which involves attending meetings and working with other environmental nonprofits that don’t have a tribal person on staff but want to involve tribal issues in their advocacy.

Willie says multiple projects threaten the Sacramento River, San Joaquin River, Bay Delta and all tributaries related to the water systems. One of the projects happening right now is the water quality standard plan for the Bay Delta, which is being proposed to build a new reservoir that would divert water off the Sacramento River. One of her responsibilities is to follow these major projects and make sure SCS shows up at water board meetings and communicates with tribes.

“We do a lot of tribal outreach and connections there to try and educate them on what’s going on, educate state and federal agencies about what tribes are concerned about there,” Willie said.

Willie said that California’s water rights system is “inherently racist” as it stands today because prior to 1914, tribal people were using those waters.

“It was important to them, not only just to use it for fishing and drinking water, cleaning, or whatever it was, it had important cultural value, ceremonial and traditional value,” Willie said. “And that has been ignored for so long. We really want to bring that education and those traditions back to the tribal people and make sure that they still have those because those are important values to the tribes in California.”

Willie said SCS tries to encourage the State Water Resources Control Board to re-examine how they allocate water rights and who gets priority. There’s a first in time, first in right practice that has granted rights to the first person to claim a source of water since 1850.

“We’re trying to flip the narrative and say first in time were the native people, so they should automatically get those rights over anyone else,” Willie said. “We’re trying to advocate for that change and reworking the water rights system to make it more equitable.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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