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Reversal of Fortunes

Battles are heating up between tribal operators of casinos and those rural residents who relish tranquillity.


LAKESIDE — Typically, the back country of Southern California is John Wayne country, a perfect sagebrush setting for the old cowboy and Indian shoot-'em-ups of an earlier day. A lot in society has changed since then, a big difference being that the Indians are now allowed to win. Today, Native Americans are asserting an entirely new kind of economic strength, empowered by a state gambling compact authorized by voters 18 months ago that has made them croupiers to California.

Since the casinos started to proliferate in the rural areas where reservations are located, disputes have been breaking out as outraged residents accuse these new developers of jack hammering away rural tranquillity. Taking place in the gray dust of these valleys and canyons is the conflict between the determination to preserve the land as time and climate made it, and the desire to rip, dig and build. It is a classic settler-Indian battle with a role reversal that spins history into dizziness.

Disputes such as one here on the edge of the Barona Indian Reservation percolated into public debates soon after agreement was reached by Gov. Gray Davis and the gaming tribes following the passage of Prop. 1A in 2000. The compact spelled out terms under which casinos could be built and operated. However, local governments were left without regulatory authority in the deal, and they now have almost no control over the environmental impact of the glitzy new casinos. In the compact, the tribes agreed to commission environmental impact studies on their projects, but any findings or recommendations are purely advisory.

Angry battles are breaking out many miles apart: Santa Barbara County supervisors and the Santa Ynez band of the Chumash are in a hot dispute over the impact of its rural casino. Other fights are taking place in the wine country in Sonoma County and the gold country in Tuolumne and El Dorado counties. However, nowhere have protests been more pronounced than in rural San Diego, where seven casinos ring the metropolitan area in nearby reservations.

"We're seeing conflicts over water and access in counties throughout the state" because of the spillover costs and impact of the casinos, says DeAnn Baker, legislative representative for the California State Assn. of Counties in Sacramento. "It's pretty much up to the tribes how much they want to cooperate, because, under the compact, they don't really have to."

Native Americans have become big-time political players and make formidable opponents. Nationwide, 27 states allow Indian gambling. California, with its 42 tribal casinos and more on the way, towers above all other states in impact. In defending their interests, the casino-operating tribes in California have become the most generous campaign contributors in the state. They have political power--lots of it. To a politician seeking campaign funds, a waving checkbook can be as mesmerizing as a softly swinging gold watch.

Wildcat Canyon is a few miles east of San Diego in the sunbaked coastal desert. It is the sort of place that people drive through, not to, offering the khaki-drab scenery that makes children in the back seat bored and whiny. Wildcat Canyon Road twists for five miles through scrub growth that struggles up from the canyon bottoms and ascends boulder-strewn hills on either side. Wildlife abounds, but there are few signs of it because bobcats and quail, raccoons and coyotes offer only a rare flash of brown and gray to the unskilled eye. An environmental study lists 16 sensitive plants and 12 sensitive species related to the area, including several that are endangered, threatened or "of concern."

This is a place of struggle: for life, for water and for competing human ambitions that differ as much as this dry canyon does from a Kentucky bluegrass pasture. The canyon is home to three parks and an Audubon bird preserve. The road that cuts through it feeds into the Barona reservation, where the canyon levels into a valley at the end most distant from San Diego. About 450 tribe members live on about 6,000 acres; they operate a sizable casino and are in the midst of a $225-million project that includes a new casino of nearly 300,000 square feet, an 18-hole golf course (already open), a 390-room hotel and a waste-water treatment and recycling plant. In promotional statements, the tribe calls it a "premier resort destination."

John Peterson, hydrologist for San Diego County, says that a similar development promoted by a private company would never be approved for that area, and that the semiarid Wildcat Canyon area is an inappropriate place for a golf course dependent on well water. The tribe, however, has stated that an aquifer--underground lake--beneath the reservation is sufficient to meet all of its needs. Neighbors counter that whatever the size of the aquifer, as it is lowered, surrounding supplies that flow into it are depleted.

Scattered through the rest of the canyon to the south are several hundred non-Indian residents, a polyglot population ranging from prosperous professionals to a few backwoods recluses who want little to do with anyone; that's why they live here.

Frances Gesiakowski is a 59-year-old social worker who for five days each week tries to help troubled youths. The effort takes its toll, and to survive it Gesiakowski refuels her spirit by a love for horses. But on this day, she sits forlorn and thoughtful on the step of the small home she recently had built on her three acres in Wildcat Canyon that are within sight of the Barona casino.

She doesn't have enough well water to take care of her horses. Three years ago, she drilled a new well on her property that brought in a steady flow of 3.5 gallons per minute. Today, that well trickles at the rate of about one-quarter gallon per minute, she says. She is faced with having water trucked in, which makes it liquid gold that drains her savings account.

Bob Bowling has owned his acre of the canyon since 1989. It's a quarter-mile from the reservation. He is a water technician for the city of San Diego, and the water charts on his own property are filled with neat columns of figures. He explains that when he bought the land, the well gave him 3 gallons per minute. In late 1999, the well went dry. He had it drilled 400 feet deeper and production spurted to 5 gallons per minute, but now it's down to half a gallon.

Because of his vocational expertise, he's sort of the local water guru, so people come to him with their problems. He says there are eight families nearby with bone-dry wells, and at least 18 others with water levels so low that their homes could not be offered for resale because banks would not loan on them. "I'm going to the assessor's office to get my land revalued," he says. "Land out here without water is worth nothing, so by all rights, that's what the taxes should be."

Gesiakowski, Bowling and other neighbors near the reservation believe that the tribe is draining the shallow water resources of the canyon to lavish it on a golf course. They believe it, but they can't prove it because the area in which they live is in the midst of a six-year dry period, and wells that are fickle in the best of times can go dry with no help from anyone.

Of neighbors' complaints, attorney Art Bunce, the official spokesman for the tribe, said, "The tribe would have a lot more consideration if it were satisfied that what it was doing was having an effect [on water supplies]."

For hydrologists to measure water availability, they have to drill monitoring wells in selected spots and keep accurate records of flows and levels. Without that, it's all guesswork. However, the type of sovereignty given the tribes by Congress allows them to disregard environmental appeals from state and local government. The blunt reality is that the tribe by law has the right to use as much water as is available, regardless of impact.

Peterson says he's had several meetings with Barona tribal representatives regarding data on water usage asking them for records "that would either support or deny adverse impacts from the tribal lands on surrounding private property." He asked to review results of the tribe's water testing but was denied. "The tribe has a policy of not providing internal information to outsiders on \o7 any \f7 subject," Bunce said.

Early this year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to the Barona chairman, asking, "In light of your neighbors' plight, I hope [you] will consider providing water to the residents." According to Feinstein's staff, no reply was received.

The unbending attitude of the Barona is typical of many tribes that have cashed in on gambling activities. They are unapologetic about their bonanza and respond to questions with an edginess that chills dialogue. Tribes have definitely used gambling to help many of their people eliminate their ages-long poverty with, among other things, scholarships, housing and health care. They showcase strategic giving to charities to demonstrate good citizenship. For historically understandable reasons, revenues from gambling provide a sense of long-overdue reparations.

Bob Coffin is a practicing lawyer whose avocation is running a 10-acre citrus ranch a mile from the reservation. Every day, he says, he holds his breath when checking the output of his wells. If production falls, his trees will die. Coffin and his neighbors know they have no legal way to control the amount of water the tribe takes, so they are shifting the battle to something they can affect--access to the reservation. They figure that if Wildcat Canyon Road is widened to four lanes, as the tribe has requested and the county seems inclined to grant, the resulting traffic buzzing by would turn the reservation into a small city.

The county is in the planning stages of building a mile-long passing lane that would cost about $5 million, of which the tribe would pay $1.5 million. Eventually, the county envisions spending about $40 million to build two more lanes on the five miles of Wildcat Canyon Road leading to the reservation, for which the tribe would pay an undetermined "fair share."

The road operates bumper to bumper at peak hours, and casino expansion will greatly increase traffic. Opponents, however, also fear that expansion will lead to more casino expansion, and usage will continue to spiral upward.

In defending eventual widening, Douglas Isbell, deputy county commissioner of public works, says it can also be justified by safety factors, although he says the road is no more unsafe now than other roads of similar size and traffic volume.

"Please explain to me what the compelling public interest is in building a road to make it easier for people to go out there and gamble away mortgage payments and kids' college funds," Coffin says. "The Indians have a right to their casino, but they don't have a right to tax money to build them a wider road to encourage more traffic to do more damage to this fragile environment."

A formidable ally siding with the residents is the local chapter of the Sierra Club, for which Geoffrey Smith is the conservation coordinator. Rather than a road expansion, which the Sierra Club opposes, the group favors large-scale use of trams or buses operated by the tribe to ferry people to the casino. Smith says road expansion in this type of "leapfrog" development would greatly harm the wildlife habitat and increase the safety hazard. "The fact that it's two lanes and narrow and winding is an inherent speed regulator. Widen the road and increased speed and traffic will make the accident rate go way up. ... "

"Everything is connected to everything else," he says, quoting Sierra Club founder John Muir.

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