The on-and-off water rights agreement between five North County Indian bands and two public water agencies was on again Friday with word that perhaps the final compromise on the convoluted negotiations has been reached.
Attorneys for the three major parties involved in the settlement have agreed to the new terms, and the Escondido Mutual Water Co. board of directors unanimously approved them Friday morning. Representatives of the Indian bands were to discuss the new accord Friday night, and directors of the Vista Irrigation District are scheduled to consider whether to adopt the pact when they meet on Wednesday.
Even if all three parties agree, the pact still must win congressional approval because the settlement calls for the federal government to donate surplus water as its contribution to the protracted federal lawsuit. The federal government's involvement stems from the Department of Interior's decision in the early 1880s to sign away from the Indians their right to the water that passed through their reservations, thereby undermining the economic self-sufficiency of the reservations.
The La Jolla, San Pasqual, Rincon, Pala and Pauma Indian bands filed a federal lawsuit in 1969, seeking $40 million in damages and control of the canal that carries water from the San Luis Rey River and the water-well field near Lake Henshaw (at the base of Palomar Mountain) to Lake Wohlford in Escondido.
At stake in the negotiations is how much the Indians should be paid for the water that crosses their land, and whether the Vista Irrigation District and the Escondido water agency should be allowed to tap well water from the Lake Henshaw basin--at a fraction of what it would cost to buy water from the Metropolitan Water District--and transport it across Indian reservations in Escondido and Vista, thus providing significant savings to their customers.
A tentative out-of-court settlement of the lawsuit was reached in June, but it appeared to collapse last month when the Vista and Escondido water agencies sought last-minute concessions from the Indians.
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad), whose staff had served as go-between in the protracted talks, said last month the agreement appeared to be "self-destructing" because of the last-minute changes.
But on Friday, Packard and his staff pronounced victory in the talks.
"I am finally in a position of being able to introduce a bill in Congress to authorize the settlement," Packard said. "I had insisted all along that all aspects of this dispute, including differences between Escondido and Vista, be resolved so we could present a unified position to my colleagues. Now we can do that."
According to the June agreement:
- The Indians would keep half of the locally produced water from Lake Henshaw and its adjoining well field. Escondido and Vista would share the other half.
- The Indians would get 20,000 acre-feet of surplus federal water annually from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. In turn, the Indians would give 30% of that water to the public water agencies as compensation for those agencies maintaining and operating the existing canal and water-well network. (An acre-foot of water is 325,900 gallons.)
- The Indians would pay 50% of the cost of the energy to run the well field. All other costs would be paid by the Vista and Escondido agencies, including maintenance of the wells and canals system.
- If the Indians wanted to sell any of their federal surplus water, Escondido and Vista would be able to receive a 5% discount for the first 7,000 acre-feet it purchased, and a 20% discount for the additional water it bought from the Indians.
In November, Vista and Escondido announced they had come to terms on how each agency would maintain and operate its share of the water delivery system, but they insisted the June agreement with the Indians be changed so that:
- The Indians would help pay an estimated $300,000 a year to maintain the system.
- Surplus water sold by the Indians to Vista and Escondido would be discounted by a flat 25%, a potential loss of $250,000 in annual revenues for the Indians.
The Indians cried foul over the proposed changes and accused the public water agencies of reneging on the June agreement.
Negotiations resumed between the two sides, and a renewed agreement was fashioned during talks earlier this week in the Denver law office of Robert Pelcyger, who represents the Indians.
"Everyone had the attitude, going into those meetings, that this was the time to take care of this matter once and for all, because if we didn't come out with an agreement this time, there wouldn't be a next time," said Clyde Romney of Packard's staff, who has spent 15 months as a middleman.
"Without an agreement this week, it would have gone to trial and, with endless appeals, it would have been carried over to a whole new generation of attorneys and clients," Romney said.
The new changes in the water truce include:
- The Indians will pay about $1 million to cover or put underground that part of the canal that crosses the San Pasqual Indian Reservation. An Indian child drowned several years ago in the canal.
- The Indians will pay 40% of the cost of maintaining the well field--but not pay any cost of maintaining the canal or the Lake Henshaw dam.
- The Vista and Escondido agencies will receive a 10% discount on the first 7,000 acre-feet of surplus water they buy from the Indians, and a 20% discount on additional water.
- Congress will be asked to provide 22,700 acre-feet of surplus water.
Pelcyger said he was satisfied by this week's compromise.
Ken Foster, attorney for the Vista agency, declined to comment on the agreement until he presents the terms to the Vista board of directors on Wednesday. Escondido officials, meanwhile, hailed the agreement as "an end to the longstanding litigation."