Parties Resolve Pechanga Claims to Water Rights

>The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians and the Rancho California Water District recently announced an agreement on a framework, developed with the assistance of the Metropolitan Water District and a team appointed by the U.S. Department of Interior, that will resolve Pechanga's longstanding claims to water rights in the Santa Margarita River Basin.

The framework agreement will provide Pechanga with rights to water that are equal to those that were set forth in the original federal court Fallbrook Decree. Pechanga will receive water from the Wolf Valley Basin and other sources as outlined in a new supply agreement expected to be entered into among Pechanga, Metropolitan Water District, and the United States on behalf of the Tribe. No other water user in the Santa Margarita Basin will be affected by this agreement.

Pechanga has also agreed to provide a portion of the settlement contribution that they expect to receive from the federal government to the Rancho California Integrated Resource Plan Project, an initiative that will enhance water supply and quality for Southwest Riverside County through 2050. This could result in anywhere from $10 to $20 million in federal funds for the project.

"This framework agreement, while still subject to additional federal review and approvals, marks a historic milestone in our long battle to preserve our water rights," said Tribal Chair Mark Macarro. "Generations of Pechanga leaders have struggled to secure our access to this important resource. This agreement will allow all parties involved to avoid costly and protracted lawsuits and finally bring about a resolution to this struggle."

The agreement will provide the Rancho California Water District with the benefits of a Dry Year Supply Agreement, which will permit Rancho to supplement its water supplies in dry years.

Larry Libeu, the Rancho California Board director with designated responsibility for this negotiation, was similarly optimistic, stating "our long-term efforts to develop a cooperative water management procedure with Pechanga have been the key to our success here. This remarkable achievement is one that helps us all avoid the extremely costly and combative legal battle that was precipitated last year with respect to other tribes with claims in the Santa Margarita Basin."

Libeu also noted that "this ultimately is a win-win proposition. Not only are we able to find a workable solution to the water rights claims of the Tribe, but we are also in a position to address together with Pechanga our joint concern about rising salt levels in the water in the Wolf Valley Basin. The Tribe's willingness to contribute a portion of the expected federal contribution to their overall settlement to our Integrated Resource Project is a key element of this deal."

Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of Metropolitan Water District, stated that "our role in this settlement was one that was intended to assist the parties in their efforts at settling what would otherwise have been a very long and nasty fight over water rights in the Santa Margarita Basin. We are pleased that our efforts were helpful in obtaining a successful outcome in their negotiations."

The parties will be finalizing the agreement in the coming months, which still requires additional work with federal agencies, as well as the approval of Congress and the courts.

"While there is still work to be done," stated Macarro, "this is a major milestone. We have laid the foundation for future cooperation and progress."