Tribal Affairs Program Logo

Tribal Beneficial Uses – Cultural Uses of Water

Background

On May 2, 2017, the State Water Resources Control Board (“State Water Board”) adopted Resolution 2017-0027, which approved Part 2 of the Water Quality Control Plan for Inland Surface Waters, Enclosed Bays, and Estuaries of California—Tribal and Subsistence Fishing Beneficial Uses and Mercury Provisions (“Part 2 of the ISWEBE Plan”).
Part 2 of the ISWEBE provides a consistent regulatory approach throughout the state by setting mercury limits to protect the beneficial uses associated with the consumption of fish by both people and wildlife. Additionally, it establishes three new beneficial use definitions for use by the State Water Board and the Regional Water Quality Control Boards (collectively referred to as the “Water Boards”) in designating Tribal Traditional Culture (CUL), Tribal Subsistence Fishing (T-SUB), and Subsistence Fishing (SUB) beneficial uses to inland surface waters, enclosed bays, or estuaries in the state.

Tribal Beneficial Uses

The Tribal Traditional Culture beneficial use helps protect activities specific to Native American Cultures and their historic uses of California’s waters, including practices not covered by existing beneficial uses. The functions of the consumption of fish and shellfish components of the Tribal Tradition and Culture, Tribal Subsistence Fishing, and Subsistence Fishing beneficial uses, relate to the risks to human health from the consumption of noncommercial fish or shellfish.

The functions of these new beneficial uses are not to protect or enhance fish populations or aquatic habitats.  Fish populations and aquatic habitats are protected and enhanced by other beneficial uses, that are designed to support aquatic habitats for the reproduction or development of fish, such as Fish Spawning and Warm Freshwater Habitat beneficial uses.

In establishing the beneficial use definitions, the State Water Board provided the following direction: 

  • The Regional Water Quality Control Boards (Regional Water Boards) shall use the beneficial uses and abbreviations listed below, to the extent such activities are defined in a water quality control plan after June 28, 2017.
  • For a [Water Board] to designate the Tribal Tradition and Culture or Tribal Subsistence Fishing beneficial uses in a water quality control plan for a particular waterbody segment and time(s) of year, a California Native American Tribe must confirm the designation is appropriate.

The Tribal Tradition and Culture, Tribal Subsistence Fishing, and Subsistence Fishing beneficial use definitions are as follows:

  • Tribal Tradition and Culture (CUL)
    Uses of water that support the cultural, spiritual, ceremonial, or traditional rights or lifeways of California Native American Tribes, including, but not limited to: navigation, ceremonies, or fishing, gathering, or consumption of natural aquatic resources, including fish, shellfish, vegetation, and materials.
  • Tribal Subsistence Fishing (T-SUB)
    Uses of water involving the non-commercial catching or gathering of natural aquatic resources, including fish and shellfish, for consumption by individuals, households, or communities of California Native American Tribes to meet needs for sustenance.
  • Subsistence Fishing (SUB)
    Uses of water involving the non-commercial catching or gathering of natural aquatic resources, including fish and shellfish, for consumption by individuals, households, or communities, to meet needs for sustenance.

The State Water Board approved one new narrative and four new numeric mercury objectives to apply to those inland surface waters, enclosed bays, and estuaries of the state that have any of the following beneficial use definitions: COMM, CUL, T-SUB, WILD, MAR, RARE, WARM, COLD, EST, or SAL, with the exception of waterbodies or waterbody segments with site-specific mercury objectives. These provisions will be implemented through National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits, water quality certifications, waste discharge requirements (WDRs) and waivers of WDRs.

State Wide Mercury Provisions Page

The Purpose for Tribal Beneficial Uses

Water quality standards provide the regulatory and scientific foundation for protecting water quality goals under the Clean Water Act and the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Act (Wat. Code, §§ 13000 et seq.). Protection and enhancement of existing and probable future beneficial uses are primary goals in water quality planning. In some cases, current discharge requirements may not adequately protect the new beneficial uses. Examples include the timing of the application of aquatic herbicides so that they do not interfere with cultural practices and reducing bioaccumulative pollutants to levels that are protective of a high rate of fish consumption.