‘Overlooked and underserved’: Tule River tribal leaders say they need help as water runs out
More than 1,500 Tulare County reservation residents are in danger of running out of safe drinking water. So far their pleas for help have gone unanswered.
As a child, Neil Peyron grew up in a home that didn't have running water.
Now, 50 years later, the chairman of Tule River Tribal Council says little has changed despite solid efforts to lobby for help.
A prolonged drought and a century-long water rights fight have taken tolls on the southern Tulare County reservation. To add to the problem, an aging water system meant to supply 60 homes on the reservation now funnels water to 360 homes and 14 commercial buildings on tribal land.
The most pressing and expensive problem: There is no way of storing water when it does come.
"Water is the life of the reservation," Peyron said. "We simply cannot survive without some help."
The tribal council requested $30 million from Gov. Gavin Newsom's office but later revised that request to $6.6 million to upgrade the existing reservoir and water treatment facility.
The budget request included support from nearly two dozen legislators.
Both requests were denied.
Today, tribal residents are in danger of running out of safe drinking water. There are already 46 Apple Valley residents who are dependent on state-donated bottled water to drink, cook and wash themselves with.
Much of the tribal population lives at or below the poverty line. While other Tulare County communities have received nationwide attention for water shortage issues, Tule River residents feel they have historically been overlooked and underserved.
"It always feels like we're treated a little differently," Peyron said. "Even though we are U.S. citizens, we don't quite fit in sometimes."
A history lesson
Located east of Porterville, not far from the Giant Sequoia Monument, roughly 1,500 people call the Tule River Reservation home. Its people are descendants of the Yokut Indians.
Like many Native American tribes, the Tule River's history is full of injustices that stretches hundreds of years.
In 1856, the tribe was given 2,240 acres, which bisected the main stem of the Tule River. Not long after, local "Indian agents" secured title to most of the original Tule River Reservation lands, according to Tule River Tribe water settlement agreement background document. For several years, agents leased these same lands back to the U.S. for the tribe's use.
Instead of enforcing the tribe's right to the land, the U.S. forcibly moved the Tule River people to a new reservation in 1873. The land is about 15 miles to the east of the original reservation and is mostly mountainous.
Nearly 50 years later, the Secretary of the Interior — without the tribe's consent — entered into an agreement with the South Tule Independent Ditch Company, background document show. The flow of the South Fork Tule River was split between the tribal and ditch company's interests, based on available flow in the river.
The Tule River Reservation water system relies on wells, springs, and water drawn directly from the South Fork Tule River.
"We want that back," Peyron said. "We can't build homes. We can't provide fire protection."
Tribal leadership have worked for decades to secure a long-term solution for water shortages in the form of the water rights settlement agreement.
Peyron has been on tribal council since 2002 and has been part of the efforts to secure a water rights settlement with the U.S. Department of Interior. So far, there's been no luck.
The 50-year-old Tule River man grew up on the reservation and remembers living in a home without running water. Decades later, he never imagined the same water issues would persist for he and his neighbors.
"I have Third World conditions on this reservation," Peyron said.
The water shortage has forced some tribal children to miss school and adults to miss work because they can't bathe or wash laundry. Families are forced to load their vehicles with water jugs and drive roughly 45 minutes away to pull water from the spring.
Another option is drive the windy road to Porterville to fill up water jugs — a nearly hour-long trip.
With current gas prices and prices of water, each trip could be anywhere between $50-$100 depending on how many judges are filled and what people drive.
A long battle
While Peyron says water issues have plagued his land and tribe for decades, the grass hasn't always been golden brown. In fact, it was green.
Christina Dabney-Keel also remembers a time when children on the reservation would swim in the Tule River and springs nearby.
Those waterways are nearly dry.
"We swam. We all spent time in the river," said Dabney-Keel, Tule River Tribe director of the Office of Emergency Management. "We used that river; it was our life."
In the 1980s, the Tule River woman noticed that access to water was causing issues on the reservation. Whole portions of town would be without water over night so that others could pump water.
"You had to prepare so if that happened, you had a backup," she said.
At the time, the reservation was home to roughly 600 people. Today, the population has more than doubled.
"We're not able to retain our water," she said. "It's been a long battle to get those water rights."
Just outside of the Tule River Reservation is a reservoir.
The tribe can't draw from the reservoir and can only story one million gallons of raw water. That reserve would only last three days if the tribe was without water, Dabney-Keel said.
Through the water rights settlement, the federal government agreed to fund a dam project that would be "adequate to meet the tribe’s settled amount of 5,828-acre-feet per year."
In 2012, the estimated cost for the Lower Bear Creek site dam and reservoir was $159 million, according to a 2013 Water Settlement Agreement Technical Report. The U.S. would also pay for annual operation and maintenance costs associated with the dam and water supply system.
Tule River Tribe member Ryan Garfield testified before the U.S. Senate in 2012 to urge the government to support the Tule Water Development Act.
The act addresses the water shortage on the reservation and the South Fork Tule River water shed by enabling the tribe to build a reservoir to store water during the wet season for use during the dry season.
"We were disappointed that after 10 years of federal involvement and commitment to resolving my community's water issues that we were left standing alone in the final hour," Garfield said in July 2009. "But we are hopeful that the new administration will support (Senate Bill) 789 and the forthcoming settlement legislation."
The settlement agreement was finalized in 2013, without litigation. A draft of the water development act has been submitted to the sponsors and the tribe will be meeting with them soon.
The U.S. government has asked tribal leaders to seek additional support from the state to help pay for the needed water infrastructure on the reservation.
So far, the state has denied the tribe's requests.
Since the requests were made to the state, one of the wells on tribal land went dry.
Currently there are 22 wells on the reservation, 15 of those are in operation at varying capacities.
The Office of Emergency Management helps supply reservation residents with water during the critical months — August and September. The office also provided water and food to quarantined reservation residents during the COVID-19 pandemic to stop the spread of the virus.
Water is always on the minds of current and future Tule River residents, Dabney-Keel said. Some families have left but hope to come back.
There are 500 families on a housing list waiting to return to the reservation and the list is growing, Peyron said. Homes can't be built until there is water security on the reservation.
"Even if we got the funding today, (water infrastructure) would take years to build," Peyron said. "How do we provide 1,500 people with safe drinking water? … We can't turn our backs on them."
The water shortage has not only impacted the economic growth but fire safety on tribal land.
The reservation covers more than 85 square miles of rugged Sierra Nevada foothills. This portion of Tulare County has experienced two destructive wildfires in the last five years.
With the lack of water and mountainous terrain, the tribe is also concerned with their ability to fight fires.
In 2013, the tribe reported in the Water Settlement Technical Report that the water storage capacity wasn't adequate to meet peak use domestic consumption and fire flow demands.
"Even with direct pumping, insufficient water is available for major structure fire. Grass fires are routine during the summer, but often require the use of potable resources," the report stated.
The Tule River went completely dry in 2017 and 2021, both big wildfire years.
The fire erupted during a September thunderstorm that brought more than 1,200 lightning strikes across California. The same storm also caused the Colony, Cabin and Paradise fires — known as the KNP Complex — in Sequoia National Park.
Together, the Windy and the KNP Complex fires scorched more than 185,000 acres.
A new wildland fire station is under construction and will be located on Tribal Trust Land on Reservation Road. The program is funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Tribal money. Staffing will range in size as the fire season progresses, according to Peyron.
The tribe is also trying to buy a water tank that would draw from the river in case of a fire. Currently, firefighters draw from the domestic water system if there is a fire on the reservation.
Tribal leaders say they will continue to search and fight for solutions to the reservations water issues. Dabney-Keel said she remains hopeful that in her lifetime she will see a long-term solution to the tribe's water issues.
"I would like to see this settled," she said. "I believe it can happen."
Sheyanne Romero is a journalist for the USA TODAY Network and Visalia Times-Delta.