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History of the water rights of people in the Santa Margarita Watershed


Last updated 9/16/2016 at Noon

Before recorded history, Native American tribes like the Cahuilla, Santa Rosa, Ramona and Pechanga hunted and fished along the 27-mile free-flowing river created by the rainfall and watershed coming off Anza’s Thomas Mountain. The river runs southwest through Anza, Aguanga, Temecula, portions of Murrieta and Wildomar into Fallbrook, from there to Camp Pendleton where its overflow empties into the Pacific Ocean.

The runoff also feeds a huge underground water basin. Today, the water from the basin is drawn out by wells that many local people depend on for their homes and commercial enterprises. They have no lakes, reservoirs or water district pipelines to depend on for their water needs. Water is life. Life depends on water.

Since the turn of the century, the local Indian tribes, now contained by the U.S. Government on reservations, and all the ranches, farms, wineries and cities along its path have depended on the Santa Margarita river, one of the last surviving rivers in Riverside County.

The drought has continually reduced its river flow for the last 10 years. Even though the river flow has dropped, Vail Lake is storing enough water to continue growth in the Temecula and Murrieta valleys meted out by the Rancho California Water District. Some of the RCWD’s water also comes from its deep water wells.

Since the turn of the century, the use of Santa Margarita Watershed has been the object of controversy and legal entanglements.

  • 1925: The two biggest ranchers in the Santa Margarita Watershed, Rancho Santa Margarita y Flores and upstream Vail Ranch got into a legal dispute about the river’s usage. The Walter Vail family, the then owners of the ranch since 1904, was using most of the water from the river to feed its 1,000 cattle on the 87,000-acre ranch. Richard O’Neill, owner of the large downstream ranch, got into an argument with the Vail’s over the water usage. The bitter dispute ended up in the federal courts. A trial then ensued. The trial took almost three years and then remained in litigation until;
  • 1940: The dispute between the two large ranchers was settled. The court granted Vail Ranch 66 percent of the river’s water to Vail and 33 percent to O’Neill’s ranch. All others using the river’s water could harvest what little was left. Water districts were formed in the areas, like Rancho California, that were popping up downstream using what was left and from wells taking water from the underground basin.

    Fallbrook farmers and ranchers took advantage of most of the remaining Santa Margarita River groundwater supply and diverted it to their avocado and fruit groves. The Santa Margarita groundwater added more water resources to the expanding Fallbrook Utilities District, formed in 1922 that used most of its water from the San Luis Rey River in San Diego.

    All the water from the Santa Margarita River that was not harnessed and used by the large ranches and Fallbrook farmers flowed down to what was to become the Marine Base at Camp Pendleton one year later.

  • 1941: The U.S. Government bought all the Santa Margarita River lands below Fallbrook and De Luz. Upstream, the river’s flow was gradually being reduced as more and more people, homes, businesses and ranches used the river’s groundwater.

    The Marine Base was expanded by the U.S. Navy during the World War II years and became the biggest Marine base in the nation itself, using more and more water from the Santa Margarita River. A few years after the war, the U.S. Government was thinking about building a dam above the base and sharing the captured water with the FPUD.

  • 1944: The Fallbrook Public Utilities District continued to grow and became a member of the San Diego County Water Authority and four years later began receiving water from the Colorado River diverted from the Metropolitan Water District. The following years, Southern California experienced huge amounts of rainfall. The Santa Margarita River was experiencing tremendous water flows
  • 1948: The Fallbrook Public Utilities District annexes area on both sides of the Santa Margarita River and began developing the additional groundwater supplies. A year later, the government still had plans to build the dam on river and had an agreement to share it with Fallbrook.
  • 1950: The war in Korea began with the United States stepping in to help quell a communist invasion from the north. Camp Pendleton Marines and the U.S. Navy began expanding their bases. More water was needed to fill the Marine base needs and thought they needed all the water they could get from the Santa Margarita River should the war last a long time.
  • 1951: The government withdrew its plan to share Margarita Water with Fallbrook Public Utilities and instead, following the Justice Department questioning the 66 to 33 rancher’s groundwater agreement in 1940, filed a lawsuit against about 50 Fallbrook landowners and FPUD looking to establish its claim to the southern portion of the river’s groundwater for the defense of the nation telling them their water rights were in question.
  • 1952: The case went to trial and the federal judge quickly said all the surplus water in the Santa Margarita agreement belonged to the Marine Base, signaling a win for the government. At that point more and more Fallbrook residents saw the ruling as a violation of their constitutional rights.

    About that time, the Fallbrook Utilities v. the United States Government case reached the ears of then Fallbrook resident and Hollywood producer Frank Capra who made a documentary film called “Fallbrook Story,” chiding the U.S. government for “greed and tyranny” stepping on the people’s constitutional right to water. He reportedly served with the lawsuit papers.

    The Los Angeles Times also came onto the scene, chastising the government for their action in Fallbrook as well.

  • 1954: Congress approved a $22 million dam at De Luz Creek, giving Camp Pendleton 60 percent of the water and the FPUD 40 percent. The FPUD still was not satisfied and left the U.S. District Court to determine just what the government’s water rights were. The lawsuit was still to be settled.
  • 1958: The second nonjury trial in the case was to begin with the government reluctantly agreeing to release the landowners who were using the Santa Margarita water only for domestic purposes. The lawsuit cited the fact that many of them were not using water directly from the river but from percolating springs on their properties.

    About 6,000 defendants were reportedly named in the second suit (some shown in court documents), including the areas’ Native American Indian tribes. Many months passed as more than 2,000 exhibits were brought to the courts attention. The government attorneys in the case painted Camp Pendleton’s water shortage so critical at the time that without enough Santa Margarita water, it might close.

    Testifying on behalf of the defendants in the trail was noted attorney and a Rancho California resident Earle Stanley Gardner of Perry Mason fame. The government’s case began to lose ground. The Honorable Judge James M. Carter of the 9th U.S. District Court judge, of that time, made numerous decrees, some in favor of the defendants and others for the government.

  • 1963: After nearly a year of trial days, the District Court Judge issued his final decree saying the 1940 court settlement between the two ranches was invalid because other water users of the Santa Margarita groundwater were not included. He also ruled that the federal government must abide by state (California) rules and apply for a permit to use any surplus water and that the government had illegally exported water outside of the Camp Pendleton land. With this, the landowners were deemed more the victors. A state permit for building the Fallbrook Dam was proven to be valid.

    However, the government quickly appealed the judge’s ruling, saying he wrongly invalidated the 1940 ranch agreement and reversed his ruling saying Camp Pendleton wrongly took water outside of the Santa Margarita watershed.

    It did clear the way for the FPUD to go ahead and build two dams on the southern portion of the river in Fallbrook and at the DeLuz Creek in Camp Pendleton. The project in the planning stages is called the Santa Margarita Project or more recently the Conjunctive-Use Project now estimated to cost $93 million.

The major roadblock to permitting commercial wells

In all of this action, the court failed in what seems to be the major roadblock to meting out the water to commercial developers in the Valley area. The judge did not spell out who had the right to how much water in the watershed area. It did not “quantify” the water rights. While the state can issue permits for residential water wells in the Valley through the different counties, commercial wells that use more water the county believes must quantify their use.

  • 1968: The proposed two-dam project was held up for lack of funding, environmental issues and the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. Another problem was the attorney, William H. Veeder, from the Justice Department that was instrumental in calling the ranch agreement questionable and acted as the government’s attorney in subsequent court cases.
  • 2007: The Cahuilla Band of Indians and the Ramona Band of Indians in the Anza area filed motions asking district court to quantify their rights to the river groundwater, saying that it and its surface waters were theirs and theirs alone, as it was the tribes sole water supply. Anza and Aguanga landowners outside of the reservation were notified that their water rights were now in jeopardy since the court still has to decide how much water belonged to the tribes.
  • 2016: The court still has to decide how much water the tribes and the Valley homeowners have and are able to use. The county, in consideration of the pending lawsuit, has withheld handing out any major community water project permits like the one requested by Thomas Mountain Ranch estates and other Realtors and developers in Anza.

    Veeder was moved from the Justice Apartment to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was adamant about letting no one take the Santa Margarita water from the Pechanga Indian tribe who asked for their rights to be quantified. Those seeking a fair quantification in the water rights fight believe his views could cloud the court’s final decision.

    Meanwhile the Pechanga tribe reportedly has pulled out of the lawsuit after reaching a water delivery agreement with the Rancho California Water District and the Conjunctive-Use project in Fallbrook downstream is moving ahead.


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