As the world is turned upside down by the news and impact of COVID-19, Isaac Kinney and his community continue to be grounded by their traditions and practices. After years of working in transportation, water and food systems that sustain his community and their livelihood, Isaac is building his own organization – Watershed Regenerative Ventures – to invest in regenerative projects in Northern California.
Isaac believes strongly that access to water, such a basic need that people often take for granted, is essential to healing: “People don’t understand the value of water,” he said. “You can’t have the prosperity of the Bay Area without the water from the Hoopa Valley and you don’t have Tinseltown (Los Angeles) without water theft of the Owens Valley.”
Isaac is from and lives in the village of Weych-pues, which sits at the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity Rivers in Humboldt County. His advocacy is grounded in water rights and access, fighting against the unstable and obsolete infrastructure that is perpetuating the systems of oppression. Current water systems, some of which were set up as early as the Gold Rush era, not only take water away from communities that work hard to preserve it, but redistribute this vital resource in a manner that often prioritizes corporate interests, not people who deserve access to clean water. “A lot of people don’t realize that for the last 25 years, 60 percent of the Trinity River has gone through diversion to the Sacramento River, which feeds into federal and state water projects,” he said.
Isaac deems the use of water in California as the “water stock market”, with big corporations buying water and giving it to communities that can pay for it, not to those that need it. “This is contributing to gentrification, and therefore an increase in displacement and cost of living,” he said. “Many of our people have been hit by the opioid epidemic because they need to take a nip off of reality. So, it becomes not just that our water and fish are being taken, but so are our lives.”
In California, nearly forty-five percent of rivers, or enough to cross the state nearly 36 times, are altered (source: Center for American Progress). This drastic development impacts wildlife and fish populations, interrupts natural water flow patterns, changes the very ecosystem of our climate and threatens many native species to the point of extinction. Additionally, water quality is being impaired by agriculture, our cities and corporate interests. Approximately one million people in California do not have access to clean drinking water, with the biggest impacts felt in underserved communities around the state. Currently, there are many threats to natural tributaries statewide, like the Klamath and Trinity Rivers as Sacramento River and the Bay Delta. As a result, many of the species that rely on these watersheds continue to face the threat of extinction. Governor Brown’s recent Water Portfolio depends heavily on the Trump Administration’s gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulations to streamline their construction. These projects are a mixture of massive water “storage” facilities (i.e. Shasta Dam Raise and Sites Reservoir) and the Delta Tunnel Project. These projects will divert water to the desired destination via taxpayer funded Central Valley Water Project (federal) and State Water Projects.
“California’s water infrastructure has been led by the Westlands Water District, which is the largest user of the Central Valley Water Project, and is responsible for many of the water access and pollution issues in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Isaac. “Additionally, it is no coincidence that the Trump appointed Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, who has represented Westlands Water District for the last 20 years as a lobbyist, has shepherded a sweetheart deal awarding Westlands a new water contract in perpetuity. This is a major conflict of interest and will have major ramifications for the region and the State’s tributaries.”
Despite these challenges, what continues to inspire Isaac is the youth in his community. While there is so much turbulence around the environment, politics and the economy, his community’s culture and familial ties provide consistency for the area’s young people, giving them the courage to take action in various ways. “We’re seeing students organizing their own Water Protectors Club, sending representatives to the Capitol with over 100 people showing up at the Governor’s office,” Isaac said. “Within our tribes, we have a really strong connection to our culture, spirituality and food and water system, and how those are tied to our customs and livelihood.”
He points out that there is still a lot to be done for Native youth, particularly Native foster youth, who continue to be disproportionately impacted by lack of access to opportunities and unjust systems in our society. “Growing up as a Native male, I was lucky to have good mentors. Many of our foster youth often don’t get that same quality of care.”
Isaac’s hope that people take the time during this crisis to reflect and reimagine how Californians can collectively transform disparate systems and critical issues, such as water rights. “It’s been wonderful to see people listening to the wisdom of Indigenous Peoples, particularly around healing that needs to happen physically and collectively,” he said. “What I want people to do is follow their water. It has more to teach us than any of our history classes. When we learn the history of where our water comes from, we will learn to be more empathetic towards one another. ”