Water rights claim ends truce
Last updated 5/8/2008 at Noon
A court challenge filed by an Anza-based Indian tribe has reignited one of Southern California’s longest-running water-rights disputes, an action that could tighten supplies in a vast area that takes in Camp Pendleton, Fallbrook, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, Temecula, and its satellite horse and wine country communities.
The challenge – which surfaced recently when residents and public agencies began receiving litigation notices – has toppled the most recent truce, a six-year lull in a long fight over where and how to tap the 749-square-mile watershed of Southern California’s last free-flowing river.
The effects of reopening the 84-year-old litigation over the Santa Margarita River and its tributaries and underground basins are unclear. It is also unknown whether any fallout, which could take years to unravel, would be limited to the Anza area where the Cahuilla Band of Indians contends that rapid growth and drought conditions are straining its current and future supplies.
“That is the great unknown,” said Verne Lauritzen, chief of staff for Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone, who represents the Anza and Temecula areas. “The lawsuit has pressed forward and that’s created an urgent situation.”
Once seen as possible intermediaries in the water rights dispute, Riverside County and other public agencies are now snarled in what will likely become complex and costly proceedings.
Stone’s office had initially hoped to serve as a liaison between the tribe and Anza residents who lack a water district and other local oversight agencies. But the county was forced to step back from any intermediary role when its planning department and at least one of its ancillary agencies were drawn into the new legal actions.
“Now we’ve got our county council assessing this (litigation) on what we can and can’t do,” Lauritzen said in a recent interview. Up to that point, Stone’s office had posted lawsuit documents on its Internet site and had fielded nearly two dozen telephone calls from Anza-area residents who were recently caught off-guard by the Cahuilla water rights claim.
That uncertainty left the county unable to interject itself beyond advising affected residents to hire an attorney or do so with their neighbors or community organizations, Lauritzen said.
In Fallbrook, a court-appointed overseer in the water rights dispute has given the same suggestions to a similar number of callers.
“We’re not providing any advice or legal counsel,” Charles W. Binder, who took over nearly three years ago as the river’s water master, said in a telephone interview. “The judge ordered the tribe to serve everybody. It’s really proceeding along as the court ordered.”
Yet, some wonder whether the tribe might be setting its nets too wide with its flurry of legal notices, which began going out in waves on March 26. While the Fallbrook Public Utility District is clearly in the legal crossfire, the Rainbow Municipal Water District does not tap the disputed watershed.
That has left some Rainbow officials wondering why they have also been targeted by the resurrected litigation.
“It does kind of seem like they are taking the shotgun approach,” Rainbow General Manager Dave Seymour said in a recent telephone interview. “We actually don’t have any property abutting the Santa Margarita (River) watershed.”
But one of Rainbow’s employees who lives in the Anza area has been served with a summons, Seymour said.
The serpentine Santa Margarita River forms at the junction of Murrieta and Temecula creeks at Temecula’s southwest corner. It flows 27 miles to the ocean through pristine, largely undeveloped canyons and rolling tracts that include an ecological reserve, FPUD land, and Camp Pendleton.
Prior to the newly-asserted Cahuilla claim, the last milestone in the long-running litigation came in March 2002. At that time, about 25 officials from the U.S. Department of Justice, Marine Corps., the Pechanga Indian tribe, Rancho California Water District, and other public agencies and groups gathered for a brief ceremony noting the formal settlement of the long-running litigation.
DISPUTE UNFOLDS OVER DECADES
The legal battles over the river began in the mid-1920s when the owners of Rancho Santa Margarita, which hugged the coast north of Oceanside, sued its inland neighbor, Vail Ranch, over its upstream water use.
Rancho Santa Margarita’s operators claimed Vail Ranch, which at the time blanketed more than 80,000 acres in the Temecula area, was diverting too much water for its crops and cattle. A tentative agreement was reached in 1940 between the two sides. The sprawling coastal ranch was sold in 1944 to become Camp Pendleton.
The dispute flared again in 1948 after Vail Ranch erected a dam on Temecula Creek, one of several main tributaries to the river. The dam formed Vail Lake, which is about 10 miles east of Temecula. The water held there is used by the Rancho California Water District to recharge underground basins.
Rancho relies on underground water supplies to meet much of its residential, commercial, and agricultural demands. That district has been a key player in the litigation because it took over Vail Ranch’s water distribution system and it serves the fast growing Temecula and Murrieta areas.
Steps to settle the protracted litigation began to take root in 2000, when plans progressed that called for Rancho to annually double the amount of water it annually releases into the river.
The $420,000 pipeline and valve system began releasing water in January 2003, which was about 10 months after the legal pact had been approved.
Later, tense relations between Rancho and the Pechanga tribe were resolved when those two sides reached an aquifer-sharing agreement. That agreement opened the door for the tribe to receive a reliable, steady supply of water from imported, underground, and reclaimed sources.
CAHUILLA TRIBE ETCHES NEW CHAPTER
The Cahuilla tribe, which operates a small casino in the rural Anza area, in December 2006 asked a federal judge to reopen the historic lawsuit. The tribe said federal case law had recognized its reservation’s water rights in 1908, and that federal attorneys had represented Cahuilla rights at earlier Santa Margarita water rights proceedings.
Those rulings gave the tribe rights to waters flowing through and beneath its nearly 13,000 acres of reservation land, according to Cahuilla court documents. Tribal documents cited concerns of encroaching development, including plans to build housing projects of up to 1,000 homes in the 10,000-resident unincorporated community.
The tribe contends that earlier court rulings and settlements stopped short of quantifying Cahuilla’s water rights and “rapid development in Southern California in the last hundred years has created an enormous burden on water resources for all residents.”
Legal proceedings were put on hold in July 2007 when federal court Judge Gordon Thompson, Jr., ruled that the tribe must formally identify and serve affected residents, groups, and agencies before the case can move forward.
A lull in court filings and other actions ended recently when the tribe began filing formal legal notices and taking other legal steps. A press release issued by the tribe was seemingly aimed at easing fears over the legal action’s potential scope and impacts.
“The tribe is not seeking to put anyone out of business or home. Instead, the tribe views community members’ successful business operations in Riverside County as contributors to a thriving economy that benefits everyone,” the tribe’s press release stated.
“The Cahuilla tribe prefers negotiations because the process is more friendly and avoids costly, lengthy litigation,” the release concluded. “Settlement negotiations tend to successfully result in an agreement that works for everyone.”
The release referred media calls to Tribal Chairman Anthony Madrigal, Jr., who could not be reached following a pair of recent telephone messages.
FILING SPARKS MIXED REACTIONS
At the restart of the legal process, Rancho California Water District officials said the tribe’s claim did not affect their operations.
“We’re not involved and have no comment on the legal action,” Meggan Reed, a district spokeswoman, said in November. She was unable to provide an updated reaction or comment when contacted recently by a reporter.
Fallbrook Public Utility District officials were also cautious in responding to the latest legal twist. A recent statement released by Noelle Denke, a district spokeswoman, noted that her agency did not send out the recent court notices and it would not comment on the new legal proceedings.
FPUD is a key player in the litigation because it is listed as the lead defendant. Much of its legal involvement can be traced to the district’s protracted efforts to tap the river. In 1974, federal permits were approved authorizing the development of two dams on the river. Neither dam has been built due to legal or environmental challenges.
Denke’s statement said the district’s proposed water-diversion project – which was unveiled in January 2005 and is expected to cost about $100 million – “is moving forward.”
That plan – dubbed the “conjunctive use project” – would team the Fallbrook district and Camp Pendleton to replace an 80-year-old wall on the base with a modern weir to divert more water into storage ponds for seepage into underground pools for later use.
Denke said that project, if built, would meet all of Camp Pendleton’s future water needs and 40 percent of the future needs of FPUD customers.
“In light of California’s current strained water situation, the Santa Margarita River could be a boon to Fallbrook and to San Diego County’s water supply,” she said in the statement.
Bob Wheeler, an Anza resident since 1976 who helped start several local groups, has questioned the stance taken by Stone’s office and pressed for a regional water study that could take years to complete and cost $1.3 million.
Wheeler, who has a Doctorate Degree in Economics, said the Anza area must share its scarce supply because it is too expensive to import water from Northern California or the Colorado River.
He said Anza residents, community groups, and the tribe must work together rather than seek help from the county or developers.
“Our best friends are the Indians themselves who had the courage to file an action to get the ball rolling and with whom our interest coincides – that is to determine and fairly share the valley’s limited water,” Wheeler wrote in a recent newspaper editorial.