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Tribal Beneficial Uses – Cultural Uses of Water

Since time immemorial, California Native American Tribes have used, and in some cases continue to use, water to support their cultural, spiritual, ceremonial, and/or traditional rights. Tribal Beneficial Uses provide a water quality safety measure that considers these specific uses of water by individuals, households, or communities of California Tribes. This webpage explains Tribal Beneficial Uses and encourages California Tribes and tribal communities to participate in the related basin-planning process.

Traditional Salmon Bake (banner image), is courtesy of Marla Bennett, Quartz Valley Indian Reservation, Environmental Program Manager

Tribal Beneficial Uses FAQs

What are Beneficial Uses?

Beneficial uses are goals the California Water Boards designate to ensure Californians have access to the highest water quality and can use it for maximum benefit. There are an array of beneficial uses including, but not limited to: recreation; navigation; and preservation and enhancement of fish, wildlife, and other aquatic resources or preserves.

What are Tribal Beneficial Uses?

Tribal Beneficial Uses are a group of beneficial uses that can help protect activities specific to Native American cultures and their uses of California waters, including the consumption of non-commercial fish or shellfish. Tribal Beneficial Uses can also be referred to as cultural uses of water.

  

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.

What is the Purpose for Tribal Beneficial Uses?

California Native American Tribes use California’s surface waters in a manner unique to tribal culture, tradition, ceremonies, and lifeways. Tribal Beneficial Uses provide a way to adequately protect certain uses of water that directly relate to Native American cultures. In some cases, the levels of waste allowed to be released into California waters (discharge requirements) or existing water quality standards may not adequately protect Tribal Beneficial Uses. To account for this, in 2017 the State Water Board identified and described beneficial uses unique to California Native American Tribes, in addition to subsistence fishing by other cultures or individuals.

  

Water quality standards provide the regulatory and scientific foundation for protecting water quality goals under state and federal laws. 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.

How are Tribal Beneficial Uses Defined?

The beneficial uses definitions established by the State Water Board in 2017 are the following:

  • 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.
  

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.

What are Basin Plans?

Basin Plans are the foundation for the Regional Water Boards’ water quality regulatory programs and are regulatory references for meeting the state and federal requirements for water quality control. They provide a plan of actions designed to preserve and enhance water quality and require public participation. Each Regional Water Board has their own Basin Plan(s). Basin Plans contain:

  • Beneficial use definitions;
  • Designated beneficial uses for both surface and ground water bodies;
  • Water quality objectives to protect those beneficial uses;
  • Implementation plans that describe the actions necessary to achieve water quality objectives; and
  • Descriptions of the surveillance and monitoring activities needed to determine regulatory compliance and assess the health of the water resources.

The nine Regional Water Boards are required to develop and adopt Basin Plans (commonly referred to as “water quality control plans”). The Regional Water Boards review their Basin Plans every three years and determine a list of basin-planning priority projects (a process known as the “triennial review”). The Regional Water Boards implement their priority planning projects by amending their respective Basin Plans.

  

In accordance with section 303(c)(1) of the Clean Water Act and section 13240 of the Water Code, the Regional Water Boards review their water quality control plans (“Basin Plans”) every three years; this process is known as the triennial review process. Basin Plans are the foundation for the Regional Water Boards’ water quality regulatory programs. Basin Plans contain:

  • Beneficial use definitions;
  • Designated beneficial uses for both surface and ground water bodies;
  • ater quality objectives to protect those beneficial uses;
  • Implementation plans that describe the actions necessary to achieve water quality objectives; and
  • Descriptions of the surveillance and monitoring activities needed to determine regulatory compliance and assess the health of the water resources.

How are Tribal Beneficial Uses memorialized in each Region?

Although the State Water Board established the Tribal Beneficial Uses in 2017, the nine Regional Water Boards must initiate and complete a basin-planning process for the beneficial uses to be incorporated into their respective Basin Plans. However, incorporating the Tribal Beneficial Uses in the Basin Plan does not designate any specific waterbodies with the use. For Tribal Beneficial Uses to be memorialized in a region and for waterbodies to be protected, there are several basin-planning actions a Regional Water Board could take, including:

  1. Add one or more of the beneficial use definitions to the Basin Plan;
  2. Designate one or more water bodies with one or more of those beneficial uses;*
  3. Add one or more of the beneficial use definitions to the Basin Plan and designate one or more water bodies with one or more of those beneficial uses;*

*A Regional Water Board could consider designation during another basin-planning activity.

  

The new beneficial uses are contained in the State Water Board’s Part 2 of the ISWEBE. There are at least two basin planning actions a Regional Water Board could take with respect to revising their Basin Plans to include the new beneficial uses:

  1. Add one or more of the beneficial use definitions to the Basin Plan;
  2. Add one or more of the beneficial use definitions to the Basin Plan and designate one or more water bodies with one or more of those beneficial uses.

A Regional Water Board may identify one of the above actions during its triennial review process. In addition, the Regional Water Boards could consider taking one of those planning actions during another basin planning activity—such as the revision of a water quality objective or the development of a total maximum daily load. The need for a designation may be brought to the attention of a Regional Water Board with a request that a beneficial use be designated to a specific water body.

How are waterbodies designated with one of the new beneficial uses?

Incorporating the new beneficial uses and their definitions does not automatically designate those beneficial uses to any particular waterbody. Designating new beneficial uses to specific waterbodies is primarily the responsibility of the Regional Water Boards and requires a public process. Generally, the Regional Water Boards designate specific waterbodies within their region where the use applies. When determining what designations to make, the Regional Water Boards will consider all of the evidence in the record and may consider whether the beneficial use is an existing use or a probable future use.

How can California Tribes and tribal members get involved?

The nine Regional Water Boards are in different stages of their Basin Plan amendment processes to include the Tribal Beneficial Uses and designate surface waters. Below are ways to get involved:

  • Contact your Regional Water Board Tribal Coordinator(s) to set up a time to meet and learn about Tribal Beneficial Uses efforts and timeframes in your region.
  • Share information about Tribal Beneficial Uses with your Tribal Council and/or community.
  • Submit a letter of support to a Regional Water Board, attend a Regional Water Board meeting, and encourage your Tribe or allies to submit letters of support.

The Regional Water Boards review their Basin Plans every three years and determine a list of Basin Plan priority projects; this process is known as the triennial review process.

  

How is confidentiality considered within Tribal Beneficial Uses?

Stated as a guiding principles within the California Water Boards’ Tribal Consultation Policy, the California Water Boards acknowledge, recognize, and respect the need and importance, and in some circumstances the requirement (e.g., AB 52 for proposed projects subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”)), for confidentiality regarding places land tribal cultural resources and matters discussed in consultation.

  

In some instances, AB 52 is not applicable to a Water Board’s basin planning activities (i.e., those activities that are not subject to CEQA). Such planning activities (e.g., Basin Plan amendments) would not be subject to the confidentiality and consultation provisions of AB 52. However, measures can be taken to preserve Tribal cultural resources and practices that Tribes require to be protected from public disclosure. For example, the Regional Water Boards do not designate beneficial uses to specific locations per se but instead designate stretches of rivers or creeks or whole water bodies. As a result, there would be no need to specify the exact location of the practice or activity. At the same time, it is important to note that sufficient information may need to be established about particular practices so that planning can properly accommodate the water quality protections necessary to protect the use designation, or to determine whether the beneficial use is an existing use or a probable future beneficial use. In those cases, certain information would be public information and not confidential. A Regional Water Board’s early engagement with Tribes on the designation of waters should include a Tribe’s interest to maintain the confidentiality of traditional and cultural practices at the outset, even if the provisions of AB 52 are not applicable to the basin planning project.

What is Part 2 of the ISWEBE Plan?

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 Plan4 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.

Contact Us

For any general inquiries, questions or concerns related to Tribal Affairs please reach out to the Tribal Liaison and staff at:

Tribal-Liaison@waterboards.ca.gov

Tribal Liaison, Adriana Renteria
(916) 216-1126

Any inquiries regarding TBUs:

Tribal Affairs Team, Itzel Vasquez-Rodriguez
(916) 445-5615

Regional/Divisional Tribal Coordinators

Additional Resources