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Tribal Chair ponders resource responsibility

July 7, 2021 — The current governor declared the latest California drought from the cracked, dry basin of Lake Mendocino, which is generally believed to provide some portion of water to 600,000 people from Coyote Valley Dam to Marin County. 

As per the original arrangement, Mendocino County is entitled to 11.3% of the water.

The dam was dedicated on June 6, 1959. The ceremony included a beauty contest, speeches, and a strawberry festival, according to a history written by local scholar Victoria Patterson (nee Kaplan).. If the man-made body of water were a human, it would be barely old enough to collect social security.

Before building the dam, the Army Corps of Engineers bought a piece of property near the East Fork of the Russian River. That’s where seven Shodokai Pomo families had settled when they returned to the valley after their families had been forcibly removed in the mid-19th century. Among them was Priscilla Hunter, former Chair of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and mother of Michael Hunter, the tribe’s current Chairman. “When we say ancestors, people think hundreds of years ago,” Hunter noted. “I think about that often when I’m out there.”  

He thinks the people who were displaced by the dam should have first dibs on the water. Like everyone else, they’re now dependent on it. Hunter has sixty households under his purview, as well as a casino and gas station that do a brisk business. A hundred-room hotel and recycled water project are under construction. 

Water is tight in Redwood Valley, with each person only receiving 55 gallons per day for all domestic water services. This does not include the 200 or so agricultural connections in the valley that were shut off in mid-April. “And yet you see vineyards keep expanding,” Hunter observed. “It seems to be that this county put vineyards before they put Native Americans...we should have first rights to that water, which we don’t.”

Hunter says his fellow elected representatives at the county level haven’t invited him to take part in decisions about water and land use. Partly he stays away because he doesn’t agree with a vision that includes continuing to deplete environmental resources. And he doesn’t want his presence to provide a diversity endorsement to decisions he doesn’t agree with. If the tribes are involved in deliberations, but in such small numbers that their votes can’t possibly affect the outcome, he doesn’t really see the point. “It’s hard to sit at tables where people look similar to me, even though I’ve never met them before, and I have to assume that if it wasn’t you, it was your father or your mother who participated in removing my people,” he explained.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t have an opinion. “It’s a lot of irony for me, a lot of mixed emotion, where Coyote Valley stands right now. I personally would like to see a cap, a moratorium if you will, on acres of vineyards. It’s hard to ask a resident to cut back and limit your showers, or put a bucket under your shower while the water gets warm, to water your plants, when they keep expanding agriculture, whether it be vineyards or marijuana.”

Hunter says the tribe’s sense of responsibility has led it to decide to build a recycled water system for the 100-room hotel that he expects to open sometime next year. He plans to connect the homes and most of the tribe’s businesses to it, as well. “It didn’t feel right doing the hotel without doing that purple piping (recycled water),” he said. “We started this process about three years ago before the drought was here, just because we’ve been here. We live here. It’s nothing new. The drought’s not new. It’s just getting worse. So we feel as if we’re having some responsibility amongst our reservation...we feel like a sovereign nation. We feel isolated. In good ways and bad ways.” 

In the end, he feels like his tribe paid a high price for a bum deal. “You made my people leave for 11 percent?” he exclaimed. “What?”

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