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Interior stalls tribe’s water development

WASHINGTON – Members of the Tule River Tribe of California are growing increasingly frustrated with the Department of the Interior as it continues to stall the tribe’s ability to secure clean and reliable water resources.

Leaders of the tribe recently appeared before the Water and Power Subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to explain the situation and to give credence to legislation that would help make the tribe’s water dreams a reality.

The tribe’s chairman, Ryan Garfield, testified July 23 in support of a Senate bill called the Tule River Tribe Water Development Act, noting that his reservation has long gone without reliable water due to suspect actions by Interior.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would require Interior to conduct a study on the feasibility and suitability of constructing a storage reservoir, outlet works and a delivery system to the tribe.

The project is intended to provide a water supply for domestic, municipal, industrial, agricultural and other purposes.

A similar bill in the House of Representatives already passed overwhelmingly, by a vote of 417-3, July 7.

Garfield testified that a historical decision by Interior officials, which did not include negotiations with the tribe, ended up diverting the tribe’s water supply to non-Indian farmers in the region.

“Some days when I was young. … we’d run out of water for days,” Garfield said, noting that his tribe was relocated to the dry region it now sits in.

“When school would come up on Mondays, I’d have to make a decision of which was the cleanest dirty clothes to wear that day.”

Garfield said the tribe long ago identified the need to secure a consistent water supply, as it has been forced to get water from unreliable groundwater and springs in the region.

Along those lines, in September 2007, the tribe secured its own settled water rights, sans costly litigation that sometimes goes along with such deals. Since then, the tribe has conducted its own engineering studies and work to get a reservoir project off the ground.

Despite support from Congress for the tribe’s plans, Interior Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor said the department needs more time to review an appraisal study of the reservoir project.

“The department does not support [the legislation],” Connor testified.

The Interior official said his department has not had time to look over cost estimates of the project, and he argued it would be premature for Congress to authorize funding for it. He added that not all issues between a federal negotiation team and the tribe have been resolved regarding the tribe’s water rights.

Connor also raised questions as to whether the tribe’s proposed water storage reservoir would be cost effective.

“Having said this, the department understands the importance of a reliable water supply. We will continue to work with the tribe, including evaluating the option of allocating some amount of resources towards addressing the issues I just raised.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chaired the subcommittee hearing, seemed less than impressed by Connor’s explanations. She asked the Interior official what the administration’s plans were in going forward.

“Quite frankly, we are behind the gun on where the parties are in the Tule River situation,” Connor said, reiterating that his department would look for available resources to help move the project forward.

When questioned by Cantwell about the cost of the project to the U.S. government, Garfield said the federal government has a fiduciary responsibility to the tribe, which is federally recognized.

On July 30, Connor announced that $40 million in stimulus funding has been released for drought-relief projects in California, including some monies for tribes. Funds for Tule River were not part of the announcement.