WASHINGTON — The House on Monday approved a $3 million study of a potential new reservoir to serve the San Joaquin Valley's parched Tule River Indian Tribe.
The vote is an important step for the Porterville-area tribe, which has long sought a more reliable water supply. Tribal leaders and their allies envision a dam that would collect water from the south fork of the Tule River flowing from the Sierra Nevada.
"We're simply trying to secure for the tribe what the federal government should have done 100 years ago," said Damon Nelson, legislative director for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "As far as we're concerned, everyone in the Valley supports this."
By itself, though, the House bill is no guarantee a Tule River dam will be built. The tribe still faces significant economic, environmental and political hurdles.
The potential dam under study would be relatively small, containing about 5,000 acre-feet of water. By contrast, the current Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River can contain upward of 1 million acre-feet.
The potential dam would be on the Tule River tribe's reservation, south of Porterville. The tribe could use the new water supplies for its existing development and Eagle Mountain Casino, but not for any future casino that might be built on off-reservation land.
"It's important to increase water storage for the San Joaquin Valley, and it's especially important to increase storage for the tribe," Nelson said.
Tribal officials could not be reached to comment Monday afternoon.
The bill was brought up under rules designed for non-controversial bills, such as another one honoring country singer Toby Keith. Instead of discussing the specific bills, Republicans on Monday focused on energy policy and the necessity of oil-and-gas drilling. In-depth debate over a new Tule River dam will come at another time.
Most seriously, Congress has not yet approved a water rights settlement that must precede any actual dam construction. This will require separate legislation, which has not even been introduced. Negotiations could drag on, over hard-core issues such as what additional land the tribe might want to acquire.
Negotiators representing the tribe and others, including farmers with the South Tule Independent Ditch Co., took nine years to reach a broad agreement-in-principle that still leaves some questions unanswered. Some Indian water rights settlements have taken decades to complete.
Even the study authorization itself is only a partial step. Next, the Senate must approve it as well; so far, California's senators have not introduced a similar measure. Then, lawmakers in a future Congress will have to actually provide the $3 million needed to conduct the study.
The tribe's water problems date to the 19th century, following the 1856 creation of its original reservation. This Porterville-area land included access to water, but in 1873 the reservation was moved 15 miles to the east. The reservation now spans about 58,000 mostly arid acres.
"The groundwater sources have managed barely to serve the current needs of the tribal community on the reservation," Alec Garfield, the tribe's lead water negotiator, told a House panel last year, adding that "the injustices and inequities of the past are still present and are still affecting our people."