The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is probing allegations that California regulation of water quality in the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary amounts to environmental racism. 

In a decision issued Aug. 8, EPA said it had accepted for investigation an administrative complaint alleging the California State Water Resources Control Board has discriminated against Native American tribes and other peoples by failing to update water quality standards in the Bay-Delta area.

The complaint was brought in December 2022 by two tribes, the Filipino community of South Stockton, Calif., and environmental groups Restore the Delta and Save the Salmon.

“This decision is a major step toward repairing the years of harm to tribes, communities of color and environmental justice communities caused by the state water board’s neglect of its responsibilities to protect our water,” Kasil Willie, staff attorney for Save the Salmon, said in a news release.

The complaint requested that EPA “immediately and thoroughly investigate the State Water Board’s noncompliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act” and withhold federal permits and approvals for major water export infrastructure in the Bay-Delta, such as the Delta Conveyance Project, until the board achieves compliance with Title VI and the Clean Water Act.

The Delta Conveyance Project includes a controversial plan to build a 45-mile-long tunnel to divert water from northern California to the arid south.

EPA’s decision comes four months after President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to “consider measures to address and prevent disproportionate and adverse environmental and health impacts on communities.”

The Bay-Delta is a key watershed, providing water for 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland. In their complaint, the tribes and activists said the state last initiated a comprehensive review of Bay-Delta water quality standards more than a decade ago, leaving in place outdated standards that “fail to protect beneficial uses in Bay-Delta waterways or account for tribes’ reserved rights and interests.”

“The impacts of these failures have fallen disproportionately on Native tribes and communities of color,” the complaint read, citing, for example, Miwok Indians being unable to perform cultural, religious and subsistence practices in contaminated waters and the Winnemem Wintu tribe being unable to practice a religion and way of life that depend on Chinook salmon.

A spokeswoman for the water board said it believes EPA “will ultimately conclude the board has acted appropriately.”

“The State Water Board deeply values its partnership with tribes to protect and preserve California’s water resources,” she said. “The board’s highest water quality planning priority has been restoring native fish species in the Delta watershed, which are central to the lifeways of many tribes.”