Residents speak their piece in the federal water rights case

It has been more than 10 years since nearly 2,000 Anza and Aguanga landowners with properties surrounding the Cahuilla and Ramona Indian Reservation were notified that their water rights were in litigation and settlement negotiations were underway.

The tribes, referring to an earlier settlement in a case titled U.S. vs. Fallbrook Public Utility that has been dragging on since 1963, filed an appeal with the court to quantify their water rights in the upper portion of the Santa Margarita River Watershed that had not be determined by the court.

More than a dozen Anza Valley residents trekked down to the 9th U.S. District Court in San Diego Aug. 23 and, for the first time, were able to plead to Magistrate Judge Ruben B. Brooks to lift stays on a 10-year-old water rights settlement case that is hindering development along state Route 371 in the Valley.

Up until that time the court had only issued interlocutory decrees quantifying the water rights in the watershed to landowners and government lands from Fallbrook down to Camp Pendleton. In simple terms, it leaves the upper Margarita River Watershed River Watershed quantification of how much water is available for residents, businesses, water districts and the Cahuilla and Ramona Indian tribes that reside along the river watershed area yet to be determined by the federal court.

The Pechanga tribe, in the watershed area, has agreed to a settlement since, but the rest of the upper Margarita River Watershed quantification remains with the court, including the Anza and Aguanga Valley where the remaining tribes still need to know how much water they are entitled too. Under federal Indian Reservation treaty laws made in the early 1900s, see the case of Winters vs. United States in Jan. 6, 1908, tribes along waterways and watersheds have first rights on the water that flows on and under their lands.

With that in mind, the tribes are seeking a determination of how much water they are entitled to control before any is released to larger water users in the watershed. These include local developers who want to drill new wells or reopen older capped community wells.

Local developers have spent millions in recent years to gain permits to open community wells from the county of Riverside and the State Water Resources Board for their developments, only to be turned away because the water quantification in the area remains to be “adjudicated,” or waived by the federal court. Resident landowners are still permitted by the county to drill wells for their own use so long as they meet public health standards.

Grandfathered off-reservation community wells are still pumping millions of gallons of water out of the watershed and aquifers for agricultural, and unfortunately, a growing number of illegal marijuana farmers is causing concern from the developers that the water table may yet shrink.

Brooks, at the second meeting, allowed the Valley residents to speak on the need for the court to remove the stays on the settlement so developers can gain permits for the proposed developments.

Brooks, however, made it clear that he had other plans. “This is not a hearing,” he said. “It is off the record. We are not here to make any rulings.” He said he would give residents wishing to speak on the situation one hour. “We are here just to listen,” he said.

Also listening to the residents in courtroom was a large contingent of attorneys representing the different parties in the legal settlement proceedings. The attorneys present included those from the Ramona Indian Tribe, the Cahuilla Tribe, Hemet Unified School District, the state of California, Agri Empire, United States Marine Corps and the new Santa Margarita River Watershed Watermaster Michael Preszler and others.

Philip Canaday, owner of Anza Mutual Water District that serves a number of downtown Anza businesses, told the magistrate judge  that a small sector of the disadvantaged residents had been denied water permits by the community. He said he had measurements of the water table in the area his company serves showing it has not dropped at all, even during the drought years.

“We can expand the water service to the downtown area,” Canaday said, and offered to provide the water use data to the court.

Robyn Garrison from ERA Realty, who is seeking to establish an Anza “Destination” development, said she had a million dollars worth of land she cannot develop because of the May stays in the settlement. She noted that 46 percent of the Anza community is considered low income and those residents have a very hard time getting down the hill to get their groceries and other necessary items with only a few small stores in the community.

“We need to create jobs and economic growth,” she said. “We have a plan.”

Yet, she said it was stifled by the county not being able to issue water well permits because of the stays. She noted Anza has enough water to support new businesses and create the needed jobs.

Frank Miller said his family has been a defendant in the case for the past 61 years, and it has been a hardship on his family and the entire community. He said of the water rights case, “The goalpost keeps getting moved. We urge the court to get a resolution to this case soon.”

He brought up the problem of the illegal pot growers stealing and using more and more water every day without permits.

Brooks interjected during the remarks and said that “one thing we agree on is the pot growers using the water.”

He said the issue is of great concern to the entire staff and the attorneys in the case. He said the residents could be sure their comments were heard by the litigants in the case and would be discussed.

Before dismissing the resident speakers, Cahuilla tribal attorney Les Marston told the residents and their representatives that he had heard from the tribe that they would be happy to work with the developers in gaining water permits from the county, and he offered to sit down with county counsel and other interested parties to seek a solution to the situation. He said the Anza-Aguanga Citizens for Water Rights and those present would be receiving a letter about a meeting from the tribe.

“I would like to see that letter too,” Brooks said.

He has set Jan. 18, 2018, as the date for the next settlement conference. It did appear as though Brooks held a sympathetic ear to the resident’s plea, according to some of those attending.

At the end of the courtroom meeting, Gordon Lanik said, “I heard some good things from the Cahuilla attorney but whether or not he can make it happen is another issue altogether. But, if what he said, which is getting the water imported in the neighborhood of 3,000 acre-feet a year brought up to Anza, he feels he can make it happen with the right cooperation with the county and state. Now, whether he can make it happen is yet to be seen. I like what I heard.”

He said the information given by the residents “will be a lasting impression on the judge of all the people thinking this way.”

Flavia Krieg, speaking not as an attorney, commented on the residents coming to the court.

“I think it was very impressive, and I think everybody handled themselves unbelievably well and they were very concise and to the point about what the real issues are for people that live there and what the problem is with this case continuing without resolution for so many years.

“I think it really impressed him. I’ve seen his face and watched his eyes for many years now, and I think he (Brooks) was very impressed,” Krieg said.

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