Amid aging infrastructure and thick red tape, Indian tribes see the worst of California’s drought

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EJ Scholars, Weitchpec, California

Deep in the rainforests of northern California, Helen Smoker watched the artesian spring above her home dwindle to a trickle, and then fail completely in mid-March, well before the onset of summer.

Smoker, who is 84, lives in Weitchpec, a small community—one corner store and a few houses—perched above the Klamath River on the Yurok Indian Reservation in Northern California’s Humboldt County. Smoker’s ancestors have lived in Weitchpec for centuries, if not millennia, relying on the spring for a portion of their drinking water. But the severe drought that has afflicted the state over the past four years has begun to sap even the most reliable of water sources, including the creeks and springs of the usually lush forests of the Klamath Basin.

A rope swing dangles high above the remnants of the drought-stricken Trinity Reservoir in northern California in late March, 2015. Below the reservoir, the Trinity River flows into the Klamath River, providing drinking water to two of California's largest Indian tribes: the Hoopa and the Yurok. Thanks to the drought, both tribes are suffering water shortages. (Credit: Terray Sylvester)

“Our community systems are drying up,” said Yurok Chairman Thomas O’Rourke. “With the lack of rain, even the groundwater isn’t recharging like it should.”

Three of the tribe’s five community water systems are stressed almost to the point of failure. More than 100 people rely on those systems, and many of them will likely go without potable tap water in the coming summer.

But only one third of the reservation’s 1,000 residents draw their water from community systems. Most of the rest, like Helen Smoker, draw their water from private sources—single creeks, springs, and a few wells. These sources are particularly vulnerable to the drought.

The Yurok Tribe has been hit hard by the drought, but it’s hardly alone. Just a few miles to the south, the Hoopa Tribe is struggling to maintain its main water system, which serves 4,000 people. The Hoopa pump their water directly from the Trinity River, a tributary of the Klamath. Last summer, with the Trinity depleted by drought and agricultural diversions, blue green algae bloomed, producing potent liver toxins. Tribal officials are now racing to find funding to upgrade their water treatment facility before the algae proliferates again this summer.

The Klamath River flows through the Yurok Reservation in June, 2015. The Klamath and its tributaries have dwindled as a result of California's severe drought, causing water shortages for not only the Yurok, but also the Karuk, another large tribe located farther upstream. (Credit: Terray Sylvester)

The tiny Grindstone Rancheria, located north of Redding on the edge of California’s typically lush Central Valley, faces a similarly dire situation. In January of 2014, tribal members watched the creek below their homes—the source of water for some 160 people—run almost dry. They’re attempting to expand their intake system to capture what little water remains.

Farther to the southeast, on the Sherwood Valley Rancheria near the town of Willits in Mendocino County, tribal officials are struggling with another stress upon their drinking water supply. As drought has sapped their wells, marijuana growers—many of whom are enrolled tribal members—are tapping into the tribe’s tanks. “That’s a huge use on our water system,” said Javier Silva, who manages the tribe’s water infrastructure. “Right now we’re trying to find them alternate sources if they want to grow pot, trying to encourage them not to use our treated water.”

Meanwhile, more than 300 residents of the Tule River Reservation, southeast of Fresno, are struggling to adapt as well. As their main water source, the Tule River, dried to a trickle last winter, they began rationing what municipal supplies remained and hauling water to the reservation to meet their growing shortfall. They’ve continued to do so as they search for alternate water supplies.

By some scientific estimates, the drought in California is the worst the region has suffered in some 1,200 years. The impacts of low precipitation have been exacerbated by higher than average temperatures—which Stanford University researchers this spring identified as a symptom of climate change. The drought has stressed many California communities, but perhaps nowhere has its effect been more severe than in Indian Country, where residents depend on water sources that, in many cases, were marginal to begin with. “We are all struggling, and this isn’t going to get any easier,” said Nicole Sager, a public planner for the Yurok Tribe.

Water cups clutter a shelf in a classroom at the Jack Norton School on the Yurok Indian Reservation in northern California in late March, 2015. Due to the drought, and the tribe's aging water infrastructure, the school's water supply has become polluted, prompting its students to drink only bottled water. (Credit: Terray Sylvester)

The Yurok, Hoopa, Tule River and other tribes rely on aging, leaky infrastructure, and possess little water storage capacity. Their problems are compounded by the fact that their members, like residents of many other tribal communities, live in rural areas, where no backup water sources are available—no nearby municipal systems for them to tie into when their own system fails. “The tribes are more remote,” said Don Brafford, director of sanitation facilities for the federal Indian Health Service in California. “If their water source goes dry, it’s really a challenge.”

These problems are exacerbated by a lack of engineering and emergency staff on many reservations and rancherias, making it more difficult for tribes to fix technical problems when they occur, and more difficult to apply for help from outside sources. At the same time, tribes are finding that relatively few federal and local drought assistance programs are available to them.

The Indian Health Service, which serves as a first-responder when tribes face water shortages, is overextended and underfunded. As of January 2015, the agency estimated that some 30 tribal water systems in California (out of 148) are at risk of failure. The agency predicted that a full response would cost $34 million, but with a budget of only $3 million, IHS is planning to undertake just eight emergency, drought-related engineering projects this summer. With a staff of just 30 people in California, Brafford says IHS has dedicated only seven engineers to drought response.

With little federal assistance available, some tribes—including the Yurok—have looked for assistance from their county government and from the state. But in doing so, they’ve encountered thickets of red tape.

Yurok Tribe employee Carlton Gibbens delivers bottled water to tribal members Merk and Son Son Robbins on the Yurok Reservation in northern California in June, 2015. The Robbins were suffering water shortages as a result of California's drought. (Credit: Terray Sylvester)

Many problems result from questions of jurisdiction. Tribes enjoy limited legal sovereignty, and in California they rarely work directly with state government. As a result, their requests for assistance have run up against jurisdictional dilemmas.

Before the state will send emergency assistance, individual counties where tribes are located must declare they are in a state of emergency due to drought. But in water-rich counties—such as Humboldt County, where the Yurok and Hoopa reservations are located—tribal communities may be the only ones running dry. The Yurok and Hoopa had to fight for local authorities to declare a state of emergency on their behalf.

Other barriers also stand between tribes and state dollars. Tribes don’t fit the definition of “public water agency” in the California water code, which prevents them from receiving drought-related funding. To work around that, tribes must waive a portion of their sovereignty. Some tribes, after lengthy efforts, have been able to do so on a limited basis, but other tribes are not able—either because they lack the necessary legal savvy, or because their constitutions explicitly prohibit any such weakening of their legal autonomy. “The state isn’t sure how to deal with us,” said Sager, the public planner. “We don’t know how to work government to government.”

Dara Zimmerman, an engineer for the federal Indian Health Service, drives one of many winding dirt roads on the Yurok Reservation in northern California while en route to a public water intake in June, 2015. The IHS is largely responsible for maintaining domestic water infrastructure in Indian Country, but the agency is severely understaffed. With the drought stressing tribal water supplies, engineers such as Zimmerman have seen their work load skyrocket.(Credit: Terray Sylvester)

In March, officials at the California Department of Water Resources and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs met to discuss whether state funds could be routed through the federal agency and then to tribes. Those talks stalled without resolution.

Even if tribes are able to navigate the sovereignty question, they find other hurdles waiting for them when they apply for state grants.

The bulk of California’s drought assistance is being disbursed under Proposition 84, a $5.38 billion bond act approved by voters in 2006, and—to a lesser extent—under Prop. 1, a $7.5 billion water bond passed in 2014. But tight application deadlines, and requirements for up-front engineering reports, have put many grants out of reach of tribes with few engineers on staff. At the same time, such grants are often reimbursable, requiring recipients to front the money for proposed projects. Many tribes lack the funds to do so.

Add in environmental reviews and new planning requirements imposed by California’s new groundwater rule, and the hurdles become insurmountable.

“Tribes, they just fall over and give up,” said Dara Zimmerman, an IHS engineer who works for four North Coast tribes, including the Yurok and Hoopa. “They don’t have the resources.”