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Thomas Mountain Ranch community water system remains in limbo

The specter of one of the longest lasting court cases in the United States District Court, Southern District of California, has once again reared its ugly head in an Anza housing development over water rights. The initial case occurred in 1951, when the US government sued thousands of landowners in and around Fallbrook in a move to secure Camp Pendleton’s water right.

The issue was once again brought up when Thomas Mountain Ranch (TMR) developer Greg Burnet requested an amendment to his planned housing development. The Riverside Board of Supervisor’s approved Burnet’s specific plan for the 49 original 2- to 4-acre ranch lots on the 265-acre development, requiring each lot to have its own water well since there is no water district in Anza.

Residential water wells are normally permitted by the Riverside County Environmental Health Department, but for commercial developers it is a different story. The upper Santa Margarita Water Basin, where the Cahuilla, Ramona and Pechanga Bands of Luiseno Indians all have reservations, is greatly contested by the tribes, who believe water rights in the area belong to them. Those lands include much of Anza, Aguanga and portions of Temecula.

A many-year lawsuit filed by the tribes in the California Southern District United States Court demanding their water rights was apparently settled in 1966, but 50 years later, the allocation or quantification of how much water belongs to each party in the suit, including the Anza and Aguanga Valley residents, still has not been agreed upon.

According to developers who have tried to get commercial well permits in Riverside County, many of those requests have been unsuccessful due to the still pending settlement and the county’s strict commercial fire protection rules. The county requires commercial builders to show how much water would be available to firefighters handling a major fire on the property. In urban areas like Temecula, developers usually have large water districts to provide the needed water for both their residential and commercial projects. As a result, the developers are able report how much water would be available from nearby lakes, large storage tanks and reservoirs in a fire emergency. However, the story is different for developers in the Anza and Aguanga areas.

Since the Rancho California Water District now owns nearby Vail Lake and pipelines from other water districts, new commercial buildings can apply for and usually get the water from the district as needed. The Pechanga Tribe reportedly pulled out of the federal lawsuit after reaching an agreement with the Rancho California Water District to supply their future water needs.

In the meantime, Anza and Aguanga Valley residential homeowners have

been permitted to drill wells on their property since there is no local water district in the area. Under federal law, any United States citizen who owns property supposedly has the right to a quantity water on, near or underneath the property necessary for sustaining life.

Burnet said it would cost about $40,000 to drill a water well and put in storage tanks that might be needed. He asked the Board of Supervisors to amend his original TMR development plan to include a water system from one or two wells in the community to supply all the residential needs at a lower cost. The County Planning Commission recommended the board deny the amendment because TMR did not show how much water they would have available for the system and said the quantification settlement is still in litigation.

At the July 12 meeting, 3rd District supervisor Chuck Washington, 1st District supervisor Kevin Jeffries and Board Chairman John Benoit listened to Burnet’s appeal that they approve the amendment. All agreed that a community water district would be a better plan and less expensive than individual wells on the property.

The supervisors were wary of litigation from the state if they approved the system before a federal court settlement was ironed out. However, the supervisors told Burnet that they saw the merit in his proposed community water system and even offered the county counsel’s help to get the stay on the settlement lifted in federal court. The supervisors, in a resolution, offered to hold their decision on the amendment for 90 days until the joint counsels for TMR and the county could work to lift the stay in the federal court.

In a surprise statement, Burnet told the board he could not go for a joint attempt to remove the federal stay. With that, the supervisors said they had no choice but to uphold the planning commission and the Department of Environmental Health’s request for a denial of the community water system amendment.

Burnet could not be reached before press time to find out exactly why he refused the supervisor’s help.

Most wells in the Anza and Temecula Valley are drilled down to 240 to 260 feet reaching into the below ground aquifers, according to local well drillers. Any water down to 100 feet is considered watershed and is controlled by a water master, who is now under the authority of the US District Court. Santa Margarita Water Basin Water Master Charles Binder has the job of determining how much water can be taken out of the basin for each entity.

The Anza Aguanga Citizens for Water Rights (AACWR) has hired an attorney, James Markman, to represent them before the court. They want him to find out just how much water is available for distribution in the settlement. The final distribution in the settlement will be determined by Judge Ruben B. Brooks, 9th U.S. District Court who is presiding over the case.

Anza developers reported both the water master and judge, who have been on the case for years, are soon to retire and may leave the decision to yet another judge. For unknown reasons, the Cahuilla Tribe recently fired their legal counsel on the case and has hired another. There is a hearing on the stay scheduled in federal court Aug. 19, where all counsels are to be present. If the water allocations are not settled at the August hearing and the judge and water master retire, the case could go on for many more years, local developers fear.

According to legal journals, watersheds are created from water coming off nearby mountains that are mostly owned by the U.S. government and under the authority of the National Parks, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Game departments. The watersheds provide water to all U.S. government properties, and in this case particularly Camp Pendleton, many miles downstream from the Santa Margarita River watershed. Currently Camp Pendleton is using surplus water coming off the Santa Margarita Basin to sell to the surrounding agricultural interests although the state is under drought conditions.

The Santa Margarita Watershed is fed mostly by Thomas Mountain runoff above Anza. This water is shared by the people and the government, and the three Indian reservations in the Santa Margarita Water Basin. However, the three Indian reservations are sovereign nations, and are not under the United States’ legal authority.

Some Anza and Aguanga residents think the tribes want all the water themselves so they can sell it to others. Others see the tribes and communities one day banding together to form a mutual water district that would be beneficial to all.

Burnet said his TMR development is actually located just below Thomas Mountain and has plenty of water available for future use, and a single well could supply all the homes in the project.

The settlement in the wings could hopefully resolve these long term problems, not only for TMR, but many other residents, developers and real estate agents in the valley.


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