The tribal council of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians weighs in on the drought with conservation measures aimed at members and tribal enterprise, like the 1,065-room Harrah’s Resort Southern California, located on the tribe’s Valley Center reservation.
“Water conservation on the Rincon reservation is a matter of being smart and being good neighbors. In rural North County most of us depend on wells, and often share the same underground water sources,” said Bo Mazzetti, Rincon Chairman. “When our wells run dry and the water is gone, there is no one to rescue us.”
Like other governments, on American Indian reservations, elected tribal councils have the responsibility for water management and delivery. Local water districts, counties and the state have no authority over tribal governments and reservations, nor do they import water or provide sewage treatment to the 17 rural reservations in San Diego County. This means it’s up to each tribal government to supply water to the reservation and implement drought conservation policies.
The Rincon people survive on wells, drawn from underground water sources, such as aquifers –nature’s water banks. In the case of four Luiseño Bands, located on the San Luis Rey River, beginning in the early 1900s, the surface water in the basin was drained, stored, and rerouted to the Escondido and Vista water agencies. “We learned conservation the hard way, as we watched our crops, economy, and way of life die when the river dried up, “Mazzetti stated.
Mazzetti remembers that until their casino enterprise – Harrah’s Resort Southern California—began generating a profit and funding the tribal government 12 years ago, the tribal government had no discretionary revenues for water. “We had to wait in line for a grant from the federal government to repair, or drill new wells and build distribution infrastructure. Needless to say, our access to water was very limited and inconsistent. Today we feel very fortunate, considering there are tribes in San Diego County, and throughout the nation, where American Indians do not have running water for their homes, or to engage in commercial enterprises,” he added.
From the moment the tribe began to envision their casino, they began to study the underground water source, its capacity, and limits. “We had to prove to ourselves, our investment partners, the federal government, and our neighbors that we could provide the necessary water to operate the casino and other tribal enterprises, without draining or contaminating our shared water supply,” said Mazzetti.
“As a result of planning for the casino, we were able to establish an accurate picture of the source of our water and the amount that must be maintained – maintaining the right amount of water through recycling and recharging is an important part of our conservation efforts. The wastewater treatment plant built for the resort was our first venture into recycling, and our ability to preserve both the quality and quantity of water available to us.”
Today, the tribe recycles the resort’s treated wastewater back into the aquifer through a series of outdoor sprinkling systems. This supplies water for the government landscaping and recharging groundwater. In addition, there are regular testing procedures to prevent contagion of the water supply, which are monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency and Indian Health Services. The tribe has also recently installed a computerized program that tracks how much water is pumped from each well.
“This gives us a more accurate and scientific method for conservation policies. When it comes to water, we cannot afford guess work,” said Mazzetti.
Another aspect of rural living often means that residents rely on privately maintained septic systems, as opposed to sewer systems, which relay waste through pipes to treatment plants. The Rincon council is currently considering plans to replace the residential septics with modern wastewater removal systems. In the meantime, the tribal government has completed an audit of the tribe’s septic tanks and helped homeowner’s replace older systems on the 6,000-acre reservation. Besides being zealously invested in keeping the groundwater clean and recharged, the tribe has undertaken litigation to close down a privately owned salvage yard on the reservation, asserting the proprietors were polluting the underground water.
“We are vigilant about protecting the quality of the groundwater. Poisoning the water is as dangerous as overuse, either way, for us, without water; it’s the end of the story. Next to our reservation land, water is the most important asset we have. Recycling and keeping the water clean of impurities is a critical element of conservation and protecting our downstream neighbors,” said Mazzetti, who makes a weekly ritual of personally checking the water in the tribal wells.
Mazzetti explains that people living in rural areas and who are dependent on wells for household and commercial survival, have a different relationship with groundwater than those in municipal water districts that receive imported water from other sources. “Most people don’t have a clue about the need to preserve groundwater, but they should,” he argues. “Because keeping it clean, recharged and stored is critical to surviving this and future droughts. Surface water that flows down rivers and seen in lakes and reservoirs is like our checking account, but the groundwater is our savings account for times like this when we run out of ready cash.”
Pointing to warnings about overuse of groundwater, he agrees with hydrologist and NASA Jet Propulsion Lab water scientist Jay Farmigilietti. Farmigilietti recently focused media attention on groundwater, warning that “Today, California’s groundwater is dangerously low. As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century. Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing.”
Mazzetti points out that Rincon’s Environmental Department has been educating members about ways to save water, encouraging installation of low water use appliances, and replacing leaky water pipes for years. “While we are asking our residents to limit outdoor watering, it’s not so much an issue on reservations. Ornamental landscaping is a luxury and has not been a priority for tribal people historically scrambling for water, and a safe roof over our heads. “
Rincon-owned Harrah’s Resort undertook a number of measures that have reduced water use by 6.5 million gallons, a 15.5 percent decrease from last year. They include
•Turf has been replaced in many areas with drought-tolerant plant material
•Frozen foods are thawed the night before use instead of under running water
•Low-flow shower heads are in all 1,065 guest rooms
•All public restrooms feature automatic low-flow sinks, urinals and toilets
•The property is currently in the design phase of re-piping the irrigation systems for reclaimed water
•Select water features have been turned off and/or adjusted to minimize evaporative loss
The management also encourages the resort’s staff to employ the CODEGreen @ Home program in their own homes, which includes installing low-flow showerheads or faucet aerators, replacing toilets with Water-Sense labeled fixtures and/or converting lawns to natural or native landscapes. Employees who practice CODEGreen efforts at home are rewarded with Total Return Credits, Caesars Entertainment’s gaming rewards program. The resort also participates in a Linen Opt-Out program.
Additionally, in 2010, the Rincon Band built a solar power plant on the reservation, which generates one megawatt of power. The plant powers 90 percent of the resort’s HVAC systems and offsets 25 percent of the connected grid load. Harrah’s also boasts an organic garden with vegetables and herbs used in the employee dining room and on-property restaurants.
“Our tribe is grateful for the expertise Harrah’s brings to energy and water conservation. They instill an employee culture that is both aware and active in addressing environmental issues,” says Mazzetti, adding, “Together, we are trying to be good stewards of our limited resources.”
In a finale note, Mazzetti alluded to the infusion of 16,000 acre-feet of new water annually, coming to the San Luis Rey watershed as part of a settlement over water diverted from tribal lands, which began in the early 1900s to support the emerging city populations.
The 45-plus year old lawsuit over lost tribal water rights has its roots in a series of decisions made by the federal government where they gave away the water twice: First to the tribes by creating reservations, and then to the Escondido and Vista water authorities. Given the drought, this is a priority for the Rincon Band and four other tribes dependent on the San Luis Rey watershed. Finalization of the settlement amicably negotiated between the two urban agencies and San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority draws surplus water from water savings created by the lining of the All American Canal. Final approval of the settlement is currently in the form of legislation awaiting approval in Congress.
Mazzetti is proud that the locals were able to reach an agreement fair to the tribes, “and one that also does not reduce the supply of the two urban water districts. “We all reached a settlement five years ago, but the federal government, as one of the parties to the suit, has been dragging its feet, hence the legislative approach to bring closure,” said Mazzetti, noting that people, who have never faced water shortages are now experiencing problems the tribes lived with for decades.
The San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority is comprised of the La Jolla, Pala, Pauma, Rincon, and San Pasqual Bands. Mazzetti’s interest in water goes beyond the reservation. He is currently serving on the Governor’s Drought Task Force and was instrumental in garnering tribal participation in the state’s Sustainable Ground Water Management Act of 2014. He was also active in generating support for Prop.1, the Water Bond Initiative in November.
The Rincon Band is sponsoring a local water summit in the fall with the officials from Sacramento and other water experts to explain the bills, action steps to protect groundwater, how communities fit into the new legislative landscape and updates on water status, and preserving and creating storage.
“Water shortage is a complex problem, made all the more difficult because many of the parties and jurisdictions have conflicting interests. And in some cases, survival of the natural habitat, economic and personal lives are at stake.
“I believe, sitting down together with all the local stakeholders to educate, share, compromise, and make an effort to work together is essential and timely,” Mazzetti concluded.