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Landmark settlement reached on Santa Margarita River use rights


Last updated 12/13/2017 at Noon

A landmark agreement on the Santa Margarita River Conjunctive Use project between the Fallbrook Public Utility District and Camp Pendleton Marine Base promises to be signed Dec. 11, after 66 years of litigation in the U.S. courts.

The FPUC board of directors will meet with Camp Pendleton commanders and representatives from Rep. Duncan Hunter’s and Rep. Darrell Issa’s office at their regular Monday, Dec. 11, meeting to witness the expected signing of the agreement. The agreement will finally settle a critical portion of the U.S. v. FPUD lawsuit that has been in the federal courts since 1951, according to a news release from FPUD.

While the anticipated signing of the lawsuit involving the water interests on the western side of the Santa Margarita is nearing agreement in San Diego County, long-standing litigation on the river’s upper regions water rights between the Cahuilla and Romona Indian Tribes and Anza Valley residents in Riverside County remains in the San Diego U.S. District Court pending further settlement negotiations. Those negotiations have been ongoing for many years with changes in the tribal attorneys and the water master.

Still, a private meeting between the Anza Indian tribes, their attorneys, Anza Valley resident attorneys, California State Water Resource Board attorneys and the Riverside County Counsel and Water Master, according to reports, took place Tuesday, Nov. 28. While no agreements were reached, there were reportedly some positive results in settling how much water each of the parties should be able to draw from the upper Santa Margarita River water basin.

The Fallbrook and Camp Pendleton Conjunctive Use project will capture available water that currently flows through the Santa Margarita River and into the ocean. The project creates a local water supply that will reduce FPUD’s dependence on expensive imported water, the news release said. Expected to produce about 30 percent of the district’s water, cost can be managed at the local level.

The captured river water will be stored on Camp Pendleton in the underground aquifer there, as well as in Red Mountain Reservoir in the mountains west of Interstate 15, the district’s 440-million-gallon reservoir. Water stored in Camp Pendleton’s aquifer will be pumped back to FPUD during times of need through a bi-directional pipeline.

FPUD estimates construction of the pipeline and treatment plan will begin next year at an estimated build out cost of $45 million and will be funded by a low-interest, state revolving loan at 1.98 percent interest for 20 years. FPUD will only fund the facilities in Fallbrook. The project is expected to be completed by 2020.

The repayment of the loan and the operating costs are projected to be lower than the cost of buying the imported water FPUD currently purchases. The board reports this reduction will help lower the cost to customers and will save the district abut 10 percent per year in water costs.

Camp Pendleton is funding and constructing its own pipeline and infrastructure at a cost of $47 million. That project is already underway.

In a telephone conversation with Riverside County 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington, it was confirmed there was a private meeting between the Anza Valley Indian tribal council representatives, Anza businesspersons, state water resource board officials, their representative attorneys and the county counsel this week – about 30 individuals in all.

Washington said he understood at the meeting that the representatives of the two tribes said they would agree to work with the Anza Valley residents in approving community water systems for commercial development with a Memorandum of Understanding, if Riverside County would give its approval to the request. Since January, however, any community water system, that is, a system that uses one source of available water to supply multiple homes or businesses, if approved by the county still has to receive the final approval from the Water Master and the California State Water Resources Board.

Washington said the County Counsel Greg Priamos will be making a call to the state Water Resources Board to request a telephone conference on the upper Santa Margarita River watershed litigation with all parties involved to seek their approval for community water systems in the Anza Valley until the court decides the quantification issue.

“What’s the difference,” Washington said, pointing out that if each home or business has one well or one well serves a number of users, it’s all the same amount of water being drawn from the basin. “There is no more water taken from a community well than from individual wells”

The county, until now has been reluctant to approve community wells because of the pending federal court case reviewing appeals from the Indian tribes to determine what quantity of water they are sure to receive, insuring their future survival as guaranteed by government treaties written more than a century ago. That determination is the quantification issue that has been so difficult for the courts to decide.

“Hopefully, we will get some positive input from the state in the next few weeks,” Washington said. He praised the Indian Tribal Councils for their interest in helping the communities around them in their efforts to promote growth and tourism.

History shows Indian tribes were placed on reservations by the U.S. government after the Indian Wars in the 1800s under treaties guaranteeing they would have control of their own “Nations,” including the water and natural resources needed for their survival. When treaty violations by a large white population moving west again increased the conflicts, mostly about water, gold and other natural resources, the problems were taken to the U.S. courts for adjudication.

At that time, many Indian nations based their livelihood on animal husbandry, fishing and agriculture that required large quantities of water. That livelihood is not the case today in a more commercialized and industrialized world that the Nations are now entering into and in most cases with great success.

Water in the west for both Indian and other Americans is and has always has been critical for life, and as the stored water in this region of the United States has been dwindling in the past 150 years reportedly, the issue of who gets how much water in the land is often in contention. The Bureau of Indian Affairs acts as the mediator between the Indian nations and the U.S. government with cases settled in the federal courts, not the state or county courts.


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