10:00 PM PDT on Thursday, September 16, 2010

Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians’ decades-long crusade to formalize its share of the region’s increasingly valuable water supply appears close to a conclusion, the Temecula-area tribe’s leader told a congressional panel Thursday.

Pechanga chairman Mark Macarro pressed members of the House Subcommittee on Water and Power to move forward with legislation, penned by Inland Rep. Joe Baca, to ratify a proposed settlement with the U.S. government and area water districts.

The measure is meant to bring the tribe’s legal allotment in line with a 1951 federal court decision, which determined that Pechanga and two other area tribes have water rights but didn’t quantify the amounts.

“This settlement will provide wet water — not merely paper water rights — to the Pechanga people for generations to come,” Macarro testified.

Under the Pechanga’s proposal, the government would recognize the tribes right to 4,994 acre-feet of water per year.

One acre-foot equals almost 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two typical families for a year.

The proposed settlement, which has broad, bipartisan support in Congress, would also set aside $50.2 million to facilitate the flow of water to the tribe’s reservation. About half that money would be used for infrastructure to treat and deliver water to the reservation, while the other half would be used to import additional water

But there’s one problem: the federal government has not agreed to the terms of the settlement.

George Skibine, a top official in the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, said he was hopeful that the two sides could strike a deal but cited obstacles, particularly the cost to taxpayers.

“Because of scarcity and tremendous competition, water rights in Southern California are extremely expensive,” Skibine said in written testimony submitted to the committee.

Simply put, he told the panel, “We’re not there yet.”

Macarro downplayed those remarks, saying Skibine was not intimately involved in the negotiations. Both men expressed optimism that progress could be made during talks scheduled for Tuesday. Macarro said a settlement could be reached in the next two to four weeks.

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