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Norton launches charm offensive

THERMAL, Calif. ? For the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, an uninvited guest is finally shouldering its share of the load.

A ceremony attended by Interior Secretary Gale Norton marked the settlement of a long-standing dispute with the federal government and the Imperial Irrigation and Coachella Valley Water Districts. The dispute was over the Salton Sea, a body of water created in 1905 by floodwaters from the Colorado River that submerged a significant portion of the Reservation.

In the settlement agreement, the tribe will receive $14.2 million, and the addition of 11,800 acres to its existing reservation. The agreement, together with legislation by Congress in the Torres-Martinez Settlement Act of 2000, will also allow the tribe to locate a gaming casino on a non-contiguous strip of land along Interstate 10 in Riverside County.

"This historic agreement provides equity for the Torres Martinez, offers new opportunities for regional economic development and clears the way for collaborative solutions to Southern California water and land management issues," said Secretary Norton at the settlement ceremony. "This resolution allowed the U.S. Government to meet its obligations to the parties, ending a century of uncertainty for the Torres Martinez people. It is the end of a long chapter in history and the beginning of a new era of cooperation."

Norton and U.S. Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif. joined leaders of the Torres Martinez at the tribe's community center here.

"After years of struggle, this settlement will allow the Torres Martinez to become whole again," said Bono, widow of the singer turned Congressman Sonny Bono and successor to his seat. "Everyone who has been involved with this process knows that this settlement is long overdue and provides a fair resolution for all the parties," she said. "The tribe will finally be compensated for the loss of its land and the water districts will maintain their drainage easements that are so critical to our local farmers."

The ceremony kicked off something of a charm offensive for Secretary Norton as she embarked on a tour of hotspots pitting farming interests against tribes. Her next stop was the Klamath Basin in Oregon where she planned to personally crank open the head gates of the federal irrigation project, federal officials said.

The settlement of the nearly century-old dispute over the Salton Sea comes as a great relief for the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla. The 1905 flooding, also referred to as "The Great Diversion," resulted in an unwanted (at least from the tribe's perspective) lake with no obvious recreational or hydroelectric value. Experts at the time predicted that the water would evaporate, and that the Salton Sea would return to its previous dry state.

What no one anticipated was the coming agricultural boom in the Imperial Valley and the effects of reclamation of the Mexicali Valley to the south. The runoff water which ran into the Salton Sea was close enough to the amount that evaporated from the sea annually to result in a permanent body of water with a depth of approximately 50 feet.

In addition to having this new sump for the Imperial Irrigation District runoff, local towns were thrilled to have a repository for their sewage.

In 1920 the Imperial Irrigation District asked the Department of the Interior for an easement around the lake. The federal government countered with this solution: the submerged lands would be set aside as a permanent reservoir. By executive orders from Presidents Coolidge and Harding, all land up to an elevation of -220 feet was set aside for this purpose.

What should have been observed was that these lands had already been set aside and marked in 1891 by cartographers from the Department of the Interior as reservation lands for the Torres-Martinez Cahuilla.

In 1992 the issue of compensation for the tribe was the underpinning for the U.S. v. Imperial Irrigation case, in which the underrepresented tribe received damages of $3,008,000, a fraction of what they had sought. Further, the court refused to enjoin water districts from further trespassing on tribal land. The tribe soon thereafter filed an appeal in the 9th Circuit Court, which was stayed for settlement purposes.

In July 1996, all parties involved signed a comprehensive settlement agreement, which is the basis for the March 28 ceremony.

In the Klamath Basin, site of the so-called "suckerfish war" last year, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., plan to join Norton at the head gates.

It would be the first time since last summer that irrigation water would flow through the head gates, which were closed to save water for endangered and threatened fish during last year's drought.

"We are pleased that we're beginning this irrigation season by providing water for the farmers," Norton said in a statement released by President Bush's Klamath Basin Federal Working Group. Norton and Veneman are members of the working group, which is trying to resolve competing interests of farmers, Indian tribes, conservation groups and others.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are reviewing biological assessments issued last year that led to a cutoff of water supplies to farmers.

Last summer, the agencies said continued water draw-down in a time of severe drought would harm endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.

By Robert Gemmell, Today correspondent, with AP reports.