EPA investigates alleged racial discrimination by California Water Board

RIO VISTO, CA - MAY 22: The small town of Rio Vista, located along the Sacramento River and Highway 12, is viewed from the air on May 22, 2023, over Rio Visto, California. The SacramentoSan Joaquin River Delta, or California Delta, is an expansive in

The California Water Resources Control Board is being investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency to determine if the state board discriminated against Native Americans and other people of color by failing to protect water quality in the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The investigation is spearheaded by the EPA’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance and comes after a Dec. 16, 2022, complaint that alleges "the Board’s failure to update Bay-Delta water quality standards discriminates against members of Native Tribes and Black, Asian and Latino persons residing in and around the [Bay-Delta] watershed, particularly the South Stockton community," the EPA said in an emailed statement on Thursday.

The complaint was filed by a group of two Native American tribes, two environmental groups and one social justice group, and it details allegations that the state Water Board failed to protect water quality which resulted in harm to tribal lands, fishing areas, riparian resources and waterways frequented by the groups. 

"It’s pretty bad when California Indians have to file a complaint with the federal government so that the state doesn’t violate our civil rights," said Gary Mulcahy, government liaison for the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.

The allegations also include complaints that the water board "intentionally excluded" Native Americans and other people of color from participating in the policymaking process. 

The group claims that the water board's policies have excluded marginalized groups dating back to the founding of the state and that those discriminatory policies have never truly been rectified. 

"Tribes and communities of color have been systematically excluded from water rights by state-sponsored genocide, broken treaty promises, and discriminatory laws and policies," said Stephanie Safdi, a supervising attorney on the complaint. "Although the [WCRB] has acknowledged this history and promised repair, it is instead carrying this discrimination into the present by granting favored access to water rights holders in policymaking processes and letting outdated water quality standards languish."

The EPA’s investigation will dig into two main areas. 

First, it will determine if the board's water quality standards for the Bay-Delta Region discriminate against Native Americans and people of color.

Second, it will investigate if the water board has equal access to its services, programs and other activities for people with limited English proficiency. 

The Water Board believes the EPA will find it has acted properly.

"The State Water Board will cooperate fully with the investigation and believes U.S. EPA will ultimately conclude the board has acted appropriately," a spokesperson said in a statement. 

The EPA’s decision to take up the investigation does not mean that the allegations are true, rather the complaint meets the criteria for the agency to look further into the matter, an EPA spokesperson said in a statement. 

The state Water Board has not yet formally responded to the EPA’s investigation, but it has 30 days to do so. 

The EPA expects to release its findings sometime in the next six months.