WASHINGTON — The Tule River Indian Tribe's long quest for a reliable water supply got a boost Tuesday as the House authorized a $3 million study of a potential new Porterville-area reservoir.
The study will examine the prospects for a 5,000-acre reservoir somewhere along the south fork of the Tule River. The proposed reservoir would ease a problem that dates back to the 19th century, but its construction is still far from assured.
"The tribe views this study as an important first step to settling its water claims," said Del. Madeleine Bordallo of Guam, who managed the bill on the House floor during a debate that lasted approximately two minutes.
The House approved the study by voice vote early Tuesday evening.
If built, the new reservoir would serve a small tribe of about 1,500 enrolled members. Many inhabit a rugged and arid reservation spanning 58,000 acres. The original reservation had adequate access to water, which it lost when the reservation boundaries were shifted eastward in 1873.
"It's a small water project, but everyone would like to see this solved and put to bed," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.
Nunes authored the Tule River Tribe Water Development Act, which won House approval by voice vote. A similar bill passed the House in September, but the legislation expired when the 110th Congress ended.
Unlike last year's version, this year's Tule River bill has the explicit support of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Following further negotiations, Feinstein this year introduced an identical bill in the Senate. This makes it much more likely the legislation will win final congressional approval.
The big difference between last year and this year centers around gambling.
The reservoir study bill approved Tuesday would prohibit any future water supplies from being used for the Tule River Tribe's existing Eagle Mountain Casino, as well as any related gaming expansion or development.
This is a tighter restraint than last year's bill, which would have permitted use of the future water supplies for the tribe's existing casino but not a new casino.
The Tule River Tribal Council was meeting Tuesday, and members could not be reached to comment.
At present, Eagle Mountain Casino features about 1,400 slot machines as well as gaming tables and events like mixed martial arts fighting. Tribal leaders have discussed relocating the casino from the foothills to 40 acres the tribe owns in the Porterville Airport Industrial Park.
The new reservoir would be built somewhere on the reservation. That will take a while.
Even after Congress gives final approval to the study authorization, lawmakers would have to separately approve the $3 million needed to conduct the work. That's likely to take at least a year. Bureau of Reclamation engineers would then have two years to complete the study. Then, lawmakers would have to approve the tens of millions of dollars that probably would be needed for construction.