Politics & Government

Tule River Tribe urges Senate to approve reservoir study

WASHINGTON — Tule River Tribe Chairman Ryan Garfield urged senators Thursday to help resolve a long-running water dispute that still has some life in it.

Garfield found a sympathetic Capitol Hill audience but some Obama administration resistance as he championed legislation providing $3 million to study a potential new reservoir near Porterville. If built, the small reservoir would funnel water to a tribe that's long needed it.

"The tribe cannot and will not meet its water needs without constructing a reservoir," Garfield told the Senate Water and Power Subcommittee.

The legislation introduced by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein would authorize study of a 5,000-acre-foot reservoir at the confluence of Cedar Creek and the south fork of the Tule River. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives approved an identical bill authored by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.

But the Obama administration, as had the Bush administration before it, contends it's premature to embark on a full-blown feasibility study for a new Tule River reservoir. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor told senators Thursday that officials should first analyze an initial study prepared for the tribe.

"We need to come to the table and do our assessment," Connor said, adding that "I'm going to go back and see if we can find (the) resources we need to weigh in."

Connor said he'd like the bureau's work to be done sometime "this fiscal year."

Lawmakers already have negotiated to ensure none of the new reservoir water would be used to support tribal gambling. Even if it passes over administration resistance, though, the Tule River Tribe Water Development Act is far from the final step in settling a water dispute that dates back to the 19th century.

Once the Tule River reservoir study is authorized, a separate bill must provide the money. Reservoir feasibility studies typically take between three and five years, though the Tule River study is supposed to take two years. Once the feasibility study is done, reservoir construction must be authorized. Then, another bill will be needed to provide construction money.

Congress will also have to complete legislation approving the overall water settlement.

The Tule River Tribe is relatively small, with about 900 people now living on the 58,000-acre reservation. In the 1870s, the reservation in Tulare County was shifted eastward to a rocky location that lacked reliable water supplies. Negotiations over securing a more reliable water supply dragged on for a decade until a settlement was reached in 2007.

"Over the past 100 years, we have watched our non-Indian neighbors build fortunes on land that was stolen from us," Garfield said.

At Feinstein's insistence, the bill 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. The present Eagle Mountain Casino features about 1,400 slot machines as well as gaming tables, though tribal leaders have discussed relocating the casino from the foothills to the Porterville Airport Industrial Park.