Water Accord Ends 34-year Dispute for Native American Tribes

Oct. 23, 2002
Although it only flows sometimes, the San Luis Rey River was the subject of squabbles for more than 34 years. Now, five Indian tribes, the Metropolitan Water District, the city of Escondido, CA, and the city of Oceanside, CA have reached an accord on the use of its water.

The tribes are Pala Band of Mission Indians, the Pauma Band of Mission Indians, the Rincon Band of Mission Indians, San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians and the La Jolla Band of Luseno Indians.

The accord will give the tribes 16,000 acre feet of water, enough for 32,000 families, per year from the Colorado River. The water would be acquired from the U.S. Department of the Interior. The tribes will be charged $95 an acre foot for the water, escalating at the rate of 1.55 percent per year. This will pay to get the water from the Colorado River to the San Diego Aqueduct where the tribes can access it. The tribes will be responsible for getting to water to their reservations.

Bob Pelcyger, a Colorado-based attorney who represents the tribes, said while new casinos are one reason the tribes need more water, they need a safe and reliable water source for their day-to-day use. Metropolitan Water will ensure the aquifer is recharged, so those who live beyond the reservations' boundaries shouldn't see their wells run dry as they have in the past.

"(The accord) is important because it provides a water supply that was promised when the reservations were established more than a 100 years ago," Pelcyger said.

He said supply is only part of the issue with the tribes. Several years of drought and decades of sand mining have left the river with major water quality issues.

"The San Luis Rey is pretty polluted west of I-15. This should help that," Pelcyger said.

One problem is that the San Luis Rey is an ephemeral river that stays dry most of the time. In 1977, the peak discharge at the mouth was estimated for a 100-year flood to be 51,000 cubic feet per second. A 400-foot wide earthen channel bounded by two levees along the lower seven miles confines the river. Mineral and aggregate mining has occurred at several sites in the river.

The San Luis Rey River estuary is located in the city of Oceanside and the watershed extends into unincorporated San Diego County. The vast majority of the 164-acre floodplain is privately owned. Oceanside owns the Oceanside Harbor and the lower river channel.

The recent history of the water-rights dispute stretches back to at least 1969 when the Rincon and La Jolla bands filed suit in federal District Court and also filed claims before the Federal Power Commission. They maintained that a dam built across the San Luis Rey River by Escondido and Vista Irrigation districts to develop water and power illegally took water granted to the tribes by the federal government.

Bills to enact a settlement were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1985-88 by then-Rep. Ron Packard (R-Vista) and by former U.S. Sens. Pete Wilson and Alan Cranston. President Ronald Reagan (news - web sites) signed a law allowing settlement water to come from lining portions of the All American and Coachella canals on Nov. 17, 1988.

Amendment of the law in 2000 -- and completion of the Coachella Canal Lining Project environmental impact statement in 2001 -- helped to clear the way for settlement implementation.

Source: San Diego Daily