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President is the last dam in Soboba water rights issue

Update: President George W. Bush signed the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians Settlement Act into law on July 31.

SAN JACINTO, Calif. - The Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians now awaits President George W. Bush's signature on a bill that will enable the tribe to sustain enough water for its reservation and end nearly 75 years of litigation.

With the U.S. Senate's unanimous July 23 vote approving the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians Settlement Act, which the House had already passed, the act will resolve the tribe's water claims and authorize the secretary of the Interior Department to execute an agreement between the tribe and three water districts in southern California.

Introduced by Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., the act was needed by the federal settlement team to authorize the settlement agreement of Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians v. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which is pending in federal district court.

''Water is essential to building and sustaining a community. I am pleased that after over 75 years of struggle, litigation and negotiation, this bill clearly shows how reaching a consensus will help the tribe and San Jacinto Valley achieve a reliable water source for years to come,'' Bono Mack said.

''We are at this point today because of the collaborative efforts and many years of hard work by the tribe, our local water districts, the federal government and local leaders. This is great news that will benefit the tribe and our entire region, and I am honored to have played a part in reaching such a positive resolution to this issue.''

The attorney for the Soboba, Karl Johnson of Luebben Johnson & Barnhouse LLP in Albuquerque, said the settlement agreement is the product of discussions for many years originally reached in 2004 between three water districts - the Eastern and Lake Hemet municipal water districts, which supply water to the Sobobas' neighbors in the San Jacinto River Valley, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to Los Angeles and San Diego - and the tribe.

''The parties have agreed on a stipulated judgment to be filed in the litigation currently pending in federal district court in Los Angeles,'' Johnson said.

The Soboba Band has dealt with water depletion since settlers began moving into the San Jacinto River Valley in the 1800s and began ''diverting water from the San Jacinto River and building dams in upstream tributaries,'' he continued.

''With the surface water gone, the tribe drilled wells into its underground aquifer, but they, too, went dry when groundwater levels plummeted from increased pumping by the Sobobas' non-Indian neighbors.''

In the 1930s, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California dug a 13-mile tunnel through the San Jacinto Mountains to transport water from the Colorado River to portions of southern California, Johnson said.

''The faults and fractures in the mountains caused the groundwater to drain into the tunnel, so the water in the springs and creeks in the upland area of the reservation dried up.''

The settlement provides the tribe with 128 acres near Diamond Valley Lake from the Metropolitan and Eastern water districts, and the deed to these will be put in escrow, Johnson said.

The tribe also will receive $11 million from the federal government over two years for water infrastructure expenses as well as $18 million from the local water districts for economic development.

''We've always seen the light at the end of the tunnel,'' Soboba Tribal Chairman Robert J. Salgado said. ''As soon as the president signs the bill, we'll be able to celebrate in a good way.''

The settlement of the tribe's water rights adds another chapter to its history, he said.

''The water was made by the Creator. He made it for all of us. When you do it the Indian way, everybody is blessed; but the outside world doesn't understand where we come from. When they learn to walk in our moccasins, then

they'll understand.''

Every tribal chairman since the 1930s, Salgado said, has worked on the water settlement.

''They did all the hard work. Now I get to sign the agreement. I'm very proud that I am chairman of the Soboba Band. We give all the glory to the Creator.''

In the settlement, the three water districts will receive $10 million in federal funds to offset capital costs of a water management plan, 7,500 acre-feet per year of imported water until 2035, up to 100 acres of Soboba land to create an endangered species habitat, 4,900 acre-feet a year of Soboba water for 50 years to restore the water basin and a final resolution to Soboba water rights and claims. The water districts, too, will experience economic growth with the Soboba's economic