Lawsuit Seeks to Protect San Diego Drinking Water Supply

A proposed landfill near San Diego threatens a critical drinking water source, endangered species habitat, and sacred Native American lands, according to a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, RiverWatch, and the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

The lawsuit contends the County of San Diego’s Department of Environmental Health failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when issuing a recent solid waste facility permit for the proposed Gregory Canyon landfill in northern San Diego County. 

“It’s reckless to build a garbage dump next to a location that directly threatens critical drinking water sources for San Diego County residents,” said Damon Nagami, staff attorney with NRDC.

The landfill threatens two pipelines that supply most of the drinking water used in San Diego County, the Pala Basin aquifer and other connected downstream aquifers which underlie the San Luis Rey River. Collectively, these water resources provide clean drinking water for thousands of residents and businesses throughout the region. 

“This lawsuit is aimed at preventing construction of a solid waste landfill in Gregory Canyon, a very sensitive and beautiful area that includes sites sacred to the Pala Band of Mission Indians as well as occupied habitat for endangered and sensitive species,” said Sierra Club attorney Pamela Epstein.

“RiverWatch has been battling the proposed Gregory Canyon landfill for over two decades. The landfill project represents the worst of planning, threatening precious resources and the San Luis Rey River,” said Everett DeLano, attorney for North County-based RiverWatch.

The proposed Gregory Canyon landfill site failed almost all of the applicable landfill siting criteria when reviewed by the County of San Diego. The site is located partly in a floodplain and near an earthquake fault; there are at least three endangered species on and adjacent to the sites; it is within 1,000 feet of an important archeological site; and it overlies a significant groundwater basin which is the sole source of water to the Pala Indian Reservation and the San Luis Rey Municipal Water District. Gregory Mountain and Medicine Rock, spiritual sites considered sacred by the Pala Band of Mission Indians and Luiseño people, are also threatened.

“Gregory Mountain and Medicine Rock have been sacred to the people of Pala and to all the Luiseño tribes for untold generations,” said Pala Tribal Chairman Robert Smith. “We must not allow these precious and irreplaceable sacred sites to be desecrated by the Gregory Canyon garbage dump.”

The landfill would also generate hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases not only during the landfill’s 30-year lifetime, but years after the facility is closed and the operators have left. The lawsuit contends that the Department violated CEQA by failing to analyze the impact of these significant greenhouse gas emissions on the environment.


Gregory Canyon is a pristine, undeveloped canyon located in northern San Diego County, next to the San Luis Rey River and adjacent to the eastern edge of the Pala Band of Mission Indians’ reservation. For more than two decades, developers have been trying to build a 300-acre garbage dump in Gregory Canyon, which would threaten the river, desecrate sacred Indian sites, and destroy critical habitat for the four endangered species and other imperiled wildlife, including golden eagles, present on the site.

The area along the San Luis Rey River is designated as critical habitat for bird species including the endangered least Bell’s vireo and the southwestern willow flycatcher, and provides important habitat for the endangered southwestern arroyo toad and the threatened California gnatcatcher. Golden eagles have been identified on Gregory Mountain, which borders the east side of the canyon. Gregory Canyon itself contains coastal sage scrub and live oak woodland habitat that supports numerous species.

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