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Water-Rights Feud Close to Settlement : House Approves Legislation That Would Compensate 5 North County Indian Bands

Times Staff Writer

A festering lawsuit dating from 1969 involving the water rights of five North County Indian bands is on the brink of congressional settlement after several years of on-and-off resolutions.

Legislation to resolve the conflict, which pitted the La Jolla, San Pasqual, Rincon, Pala and Pauma Indian bands against the city of Escondido and the Vista Irrigation District, was approved Tuesday in Washington by a floor vote in the House of Representatives.

The bill now goes to the Senate for concurrence, and its sponsors say approval may come as early as today.

Diversion Claimed

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At issue is a longstanding Indian claim that Vista and Escondido officials at the turn of the century illegally diverted water by building a canal from Lake Henshaw near Warner Springs to their communities--with federal approval--at the expense of the Indian reservations below the lake that otherwise would have received the water.

The settlement calls for establishing a federally funded, $30-million economic development trust fund to be shared by the five Indian groups as well as rights to 16,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Metropolitan Water District. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot.).

The water would come from more than 100,000 acre-feet of water the MWD would bring to its Southern California customers by relining the All-American Canal through Imperial County and by developing a water bank of sorts on federal desert land.

Opposition Resolved

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The convoluted agreement successfully resolves political opposition to earlier settlement proposals in which surplus federal water from Northern California would be earmarked for the Indians. That plan ran into strong objections from Northern California members of Congress.

Under the latest proposal, shepherded through the House by U. S. Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) with the support of Democrat Alan Cranston and Republican Pete Wilson in the Senate, the MWD would reline a 50-mile-long stretch of the federally financed All-American Canal, which carries water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial County.

The relining of the canal is expected to save about 100,000 acre-feet of water annually that would otherwise be lost to seepage in the aging canal, built in the 1940s.

Because of the water savings the MWD lining project would realize in the Imperial Irrigation District, the IID would take that much less water from the Colorado River, according to the settlement. The MWD would, in turn, be allowed to tap 100,000 more acre-feet of water further upstream.

The MWD also plans to percolate surplus water from the Colorado River during wet years into the desert floor in Imperial County. In dry years, that water would be pumped into the All-American and Coachella Valley canals, thereby earning MWD still further water credits for itself from the Colorado River.

With the water gains generated by both the canal lining and the water banking, MWD officials would allocate 16,000 acre-feet of water annually to the five Indian bands.

“This legislation presents a unique opportunity for the Congress to correct a federal mistake which happened nearly 100 years ago,” Packard said. “This settlement shows that Indian tribes, their non-Indian neighbors and the United States can join forces to find an equitable, acceptable and honorable peace if they will only sit down and work with each other.

“Without this settlement, the parties would spend another 20 years in the courts,” Packard said.

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Robert Pelcyger, a Boulder, Colo.-based attorney representing the Indians, said he was pleased by the legislation. “There are further (administrative) steps that need to be taken . . . but this is a major step forward.”

Welcomed Settlement

Richard Atwater, director of resources for the MWD, said his agency also welcomes the settlement because it facilitates plans to develop alternate sources of water for Southern California, especially in the face of cutbacks in Colorado River water in the early 1990s.

The MWD now sells about 3.8-million acre-feet of water to water districts, which serve Southern California’s 14 million water users. Of that, about 1-million acre-feet of water are imported from Northern California and another 1-million acre feet from the Colorado River.

The MWD will lose about half of its Colorado River Water beginning in the 1990s, when more water is diverted to Phoenix and Tucson. Atwater said the water-banking and canal-lining projects will mean a net loss of water to the MWD of 400,000 acre-feet of water annually.

Atwater characterized the Indian water-rights settlement as “a good, overall package. Escondido and Vista are part of our service area and we have an interest in seeing the problem resolved through a program that would be good for everyone.”


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