About half the Sycuan Indian tribe relies heavily on a single groundwater well for water.

The whole tribe now wants access to the same water most San Diegans enjoy – Colorado River water, Northern California water and desalinated Pacific Ocean water.

Most of San Diego’s state legislative delegation is pushing a bill that could make it happen. The water could secure the tribe’s supply and perhaps fuel future development, including a new 300-room hotel and possible casino expansion.

Water agencies, though, are typically not allowed to sell water outside their existing boundaries. The historic core of the Sycuan reservation is not within any water district. Sycuan doesn’t want to jump through the typical hoops required to change that. That unpredictable process is regulated by the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission, a county-wide, independent commission tasked with determining agency boundaries and promoting orderly development.

“It’s literally millions of dollars, it’s a complete crapshoot and it’s frankly – more importantly – an insult to tribal sovereignty,” said Adam Day, Sycuan’s assistant tribal manager and lobbyist.

The bill would give Sycuan unique status and allow the tribe to skip not only the typical deliberations but also the environmental review that accompanies annexations.

Officials at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – the largest water supplier in Southern California – worry that the bill may set an unfair precedent.

Metropolitan’s general manager and assistant general said Sycuan could use the existing annexation process, so the bill is “not necessary and would shift costs onto existing ratepayers.” Because the tribe is a sovereign government, Metropolitan worries there could be trouble collecting money if a financial dispute ever occurred. Sycuan has said it will pay all the necessary costs.

Metropolitan’s board of directors says it will support the bill, but only if their concerns are addressed.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who introduced the legislation, said she’s trying to help right historic wrongs. The Sycuan are one of a band of Native Americans who lived in the region over 10,000 years ago. One hundred and 40 years ago, the federal government sequestered the Sycuan to a 640-acre reservation in the sometimes harsh East County.

Gonzalez said she didn’t care what Sycuan wants the water for, because the tribe lacked infrastructure for so long because of racism.

“Any other person can put a hotel somewhere and the fact they would be hooked up to water is a given,” she said.

The amount of water involved would be relatively small – at most, the tribe expects to draw 130 million gallons a year, or enough for roughly 2,000 people.

In recent years, the tribe has used money from its existing gambling operations to buy up hundreds of acres of land around the original, 640-acre reservation. Padre Dam Municipal Water District and the Otay Water District provide water on that newly acquired land, because that land is already within their boundaries.

But the original reservation cannot legally receive water from Otay or Padre Dam, even though Padre Dam’s pipeline is literally across the road from the rest of the reservation.


About 120 people live on the original reservation land, said Day, and the casino receives tens of thousands of visitors a year.

The groundwater they depend on is not high-quality, Day said, because it’s fouled by pollution from upstream chicken farms.

“We spend millions of dollars every year to treat the groundwater so we can use, and we do use it,” he said.

The new imported water may be blended with the existing groundwater water or it might just simply replace the groundwater the tribe uses.

The 220-member tribe has also made several public-safety arguments for the bill: An earthquake could collapse its well, a fire could break out that it would not have sufficient water to fight or a drought could diminish the groundwater supply.

For many people, the bill came out of the blue. Michael Ott, executive director of the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission, said the tribe tried to go through the normal annexation process several years ago but abandoned it. Earlier this year, Ott said Day tried to arrange some meetings but then canceled them. (Day said he doesn’t remember this.) Then the bill appeared in mid-February, with Gonzalez’s backing. Sens. Joel Anderson, Marty Block and Ben Hueso are coauthors, as are Assembly members Toni Atkins, Brian Jones, Brian Maienschein, Marie Waldron and Shirley Weber.

The bill is written just for the Sycuan reservation: Its language is currently designed so it doesn’t expand water access to any other tribes or to any other groundwater-dependent Californians, even though groundwater supplies are dwindling across the state.

There’s generally not a lot of groundwater in San Diego, but new situations are cropping up because of the drought and overuse for those that depend on groundwater: Last year, the San Diego County Water Authority had to make special arrangements to get more water to the Yuima Municipal Water District, a small water agency near Valley Center. Because of a legal dispute involving groundwater, Yuima needed the extra water to satisfy demand.

In San Diego County, there are communities that occasionally have received emergency water deliveries in bottles or by trucks, including Ramona, Jamul and Descanso, according to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Gonzalez said she introduced the bill because Sycuan asked.

“Nobody else came to me, if somebody else came to me, I would probably do it for somebody else as well,” she said.

As the bill’s first hearing approaches next week, the tribe’s support appears to be broad. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said he supports the bill. So does County Supervisor Bill Horn. San Diego Gas & Electric and at least one environmental group, the Endangered Habitats League, have also registered their support.

In Sacramento, there are power players on both sides. Metropolitan’s lobbyists are well known.

Sycuan is a major political donor not just locally but statewide. The tribe has spread its money around to candidates from both parties: Last year, it gave $535,000 to state candidates and causes, according to the California Secretary of State’s office.

Caught somewhere in the middle is Padre Dam, the water agency most likely to be selling the water to Sycuan.

Padre Dam is at the end of a long pipeline: Metropolitan sells water to the County Water Authority. The County Water Authority sells water to Padre Dam. Padre Dam sells the water to its 25,000 customers.

Padre Dam General Manager Allen Carlisle said the agency wants to be sure about the bill’s particulars before it takes a position. He wants to ensure Sycuan is obligated to pay the several million dollars it would owe if it was annexed through the normal process. Sycuan said it’s planning to pay that.

Carlisle also wants to make sure he doesn’t end up in court with either Metropolitan, the County Water Authority or Sycuan if the law creates uncertainty that could spur a lawsuit.

Metropolitan has a $1.7 billion annual budget and Sycuan has gambling revenue. Padre Dam has the smallest checking account, Carlisle said.

For now, San Diego has the water. Earlier this year, the County Water Authority dumped several times more water than Sycuan is asking for into a lake because it couldn’t sell the water to anyone.

(Disclosure: Mitch Mitchell, the SDG&E vice president of government affairs who signed the utility’s letter of support for the Sycuan bill, serves on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.)

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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