Soboba Band;s water rights conflict resolved under settlement act

SAN JACINTO, Calif. - With President George W. Bush;s signing of an act that brings a water rights conflict of more than 150 years to a close for a southern California Indian tribe, Secretary of the Interior Department Dirk Kempthorne and a congresswoman joined the tribe Aug. 15 for a ceremony celebrating its passage.

Under the Soboba Band of Luise?o Indians Settlement Act (Public Law 110-297), signed by the president July 31, the Sobobas, their neighbors in Riverside County and three water districts are guaranteed adequate future water supplies, an exchange of land and millions of dollars from the federal government. The Sobobas will also get $18 million from some of the water districts for economic development and a potential economic stimulus.

''It's been a very long negotiation, and we thank our former tribal chairmen and council members who fought so hard for this, leaving us to merely dot the i's and cross the t's,'' Soboba Chairman Robert Salgado Sr. said in a joint press release with Interior.

Calling the Soboba's decision to hold back using some of its water rights a ''tipping point'' in the settlement, Kempthorne praised the tribe's cooperation.

''By agreeing to gradually phase in increased water use over the next half-century, the Soboba have provided the Eastern Municipal Water District and the Lake Hemet Municipal Water District the time to develop and implement a groundwater management plan to cure the current overdraft in the San Jacinto Basin,'' he said in the release.

In all, the Soboba's water forbearance has a value of more than $58 million.

''This contribution, combined with the federal financial support, was key to convincing the three water districts to agree to their significant contributions,'' Kempthorne said.

For the next 30 years, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a consortium of 26 cities and agencies, will deliver 7,500 acre-feet of water a year to the Eastern Water District and Lake Hemet to recharge the San Jacinto groundwater basin.

The plan will help fulfill the Soboba Band's water rights while terminating chronic groundwater overdrafts that will eventually require pumping from the basin only when the volume taken out is equal to the volume being restored through natural and artificial recharge.

''Water is essential for life and is a vital resource for building and sustaining a community, especially throughout the Southwest. After many years of hardship, legal battles and negotiation, this settlement agreement will end ongoing litigation and improve water reliability, benefiting the entire region,'' Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, said in a press release. Bono Mack introduced the bill into Congress late last year.

Under the act, the Soboba will receive 128 acres of land just south of the reservation for commercial development while giving up to 100 acres of reservation land for an endangered species habitat.

The Soboba have long dealt with water depletion. Settlers moved into the San Jacinto River Valley in the 1800s and diverted water from the San Jacinto River, drying up its aquifer, according to the attorney for the Soboba, Karl Johnson of Albuquerque, N.M. Johnson told Indian Country Today in July that the Metropolitan Water District's tunnel through the San Jacinto Mountains in the 1930s to transport water from the Colorado River caused the groundwater to bleed into the tunnel.