November 23, 2017
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How One California Tribe Is Coping With Drought

The La Jolla of Luiseño Indians have seen their wells shrink dramatically because of California’s ongoing drought. Robin Cabrera explains how a federal grant – and help from other tribes – could lead to a solution.

By Matt Weiser


CALIFORNIA’S NATIVE AMERICAN tribes have not been immune to the drought. In some cases, the effects have been worse because some tribes have limited resources to manage their water shortage problems.

Case in point: The La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians in northern San Diego County was recently awarded $605,000 from the Indian Community Development Block Grant program to develop a new well and water distribution system to serve part of its reservation. It’s among $56 million in grants awarded to 77 tribes by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for various projects.

The La Jolla Reservation is not on the moist coast near the city of La Jolla. Instead, it’s well inland, at the base of Palomar Mountain, a 6,142ft (1,872m) peak that is also home to the famous Palomar Observatory and Palomar Mountain State Park.

The 700-member tribe draws its drinking water from wells, which are fed by rain and snowmelt and by the San Luis Rey River, which flows through the reservation. California’s drought has shrunken all these water sources, forcing the tribe to adopt water rationing and develop new supplies.

To help explain the tribe’s situation, Water Deeply recently spoke with Robin Cabrera, director of project management at the All Mission Indian Housing Authority. The organization applied for the grant on behalf of the tribe and coordinates housing and other development needs for 10 tribes in the region.

Water Deeply: What is the water problem on the La Jolla Reservation?

A map of the La Jolla Reservation in San Diego County. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

A map of the La Jolla Reservation in San Diego County. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Robin Cabrera: The water issue affects mostly one side of the reservation, the west side. There are about 71 homes on that side of the reservation. Basically, they have reduced water pressure. They have had drops in the static and pumping (dynamic) water pressures in the community wells over the past four years because of the drought.

The two wells they currently have serving that side of the reservation, they’re both drawing from the same water table, so they are fighting each other. The water level has dropped considerably. The wells have dropped 35–50ft (11–15m), and the dynamic water level has dropped 130–50ft (40–46m).

With the low water pressure, it causes backflow problems to where it can cause the water to have bacteria problems and not be clean water for the occupants of the homes.

Also, there are problems for fire suppression because they don’t have the water pressure they need. In 2007, they had a fire down here, the Poomacha Fire, named for one of the neighborhoods on the reservation. It started on the reservation and they did not have the water pressure to be able to fight it as well as they could have. Basically, they didn’t have any water except for the fire trucks. There were no water storage tanks over in the western side and there still aren’t. Thirteen of the homes we manage were burned down.

The reservation covers over 9,000 acres (3,640 hectares), with housing on opposite sides of the Palomar Mountain. The east side hasn’t had the same problems the west side has had because their well produces at a much greater rate than the western side. It’s still low in water, and they still have rationing.

Water Deeply: What is being proposed to deal with the problems on the west side?

Cabrera: The project is the completion of a new well. A test well was already dug. They know it produces water, so it’s a completion of that well. This third well they drilled for this test is drawing from a different water source, so it won’t reduce the supply for the other two wells.

Also, it involves construction of a 100,000-gallon (378,500-liter) water storage tank to supply water to that side of the reservation. And also upgrading 300ft (90m) of water line from 4in to 6in, (10cm to 15cm), because right now the small pipe reduces the pressure. The water tank will provide that water pressure to be able to fight fires over there.

Water Deeply: How are residents coping with the water shortages?

Cabrera: They have been on mandatory rationing. Basically, it’s kind of like the rest of us, but a lot more stringent. Also, on occasion the water was turned off because they didn’t have enough water to get it down to all the homes far from the wells. So that’s one of the reasons for the new tank – keeps that pressure up all the time.

Water Deeply: Does the project allow the tribe to accomplish any other goals?

Cabrera: This is the one area of the reservation that has land that we can build on for new homes. However, we have not had water to service the homes. So they can’t build any new homes until we get this water infrastructure in there. They are a large reservation, but a lot of their land is not accessible or very costly to build on because of lack of infrastructure.

Our list for new homes probably has 10 to 15 people that are waiting for new homes, and that’s not counting the people that don’t put in applications. A lot of people are living two to three families in one home.

Water Deeply: How does the tribe sustain itself?

Cabrera: They are a very low-income tribe. They have a campground along the San Luis Rey River, they have a zipline and they have a small gas station with a small store. Tubing on the river is also popular with campers and day-use visitors. But I know the river has gone down significantly because of the drought.

The tribe chose not to pursue casino development like a few other tribes in the region. At one time, they operated a water park as a tourist attraction, but it’s been closed for eight years or so.

Water Deeply: Besides the federal grant, how is the water project being funded?

Cabrera: For the grant to get funded at the maximum amount, we needed to leverage 25 percent of the total cost. That will be funded with Indian Housing Block Grant funds.

We manage the government housing funds for 10 different tribes. We build their homes, we rehabilitate homes. That’s the main thing we do.

However, three of our tribes donate their Indian Housing Block Grant funds to the low-income tribes. Those three – Morongo, Twentynine Palms and Santa Ynez – are the ones with casinos. Housing projects can only be for low-income tribal members. Due to the fact they have no low-income tribal members, they weren’t applying for the funds. Our executive director went to the tribes and volunteered to apply on their behalf and donate the money to the other tribes. It allows us to have the leverage funds to apply for the community development grants. The other tribes wouldn’t have sufficient leverage funds to match the full grant without this donated money.


- Originally appeared at Newsdeeply.com