Community leaders testify on Viejas’ behalf, ask Padre’s water board to find alternative solution;
Viejas to ask judge on Friday to extend injunction
By Miriam Raftery
June 24, 2010 (Santee) – Improper. Disrespectful. Inappropriate. Embarassing. Those were some of the terms community leaders used at yesterday’s Padre Dam Municipal Water Board hearing to describe the Board’s refusal to halt construction at a planned reservoir and pipeline site near Lake Jennings.
“I’ve just come from the site,” Leon Thompson testified, drawing an audible gasp from the crow when he added that he shot video showing “desecration continuing” of areas near a circle of rocks marking grave sites. View video here.
“There are two large earth movers with scoops digging up earth,” Thompson said. “They are not sifting. They are not looking through it.” Thompson is a board member for the Heartland Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that includes Project Preservation, a program that fosters preservation of our region’s archaeological heritage. (Heartland is also the nonprofit publisher of East County Magazine.)
Following discovery of ancient Native American human remains and artifacts, a Superior Court Judge issued a temporary restraining order to halt construction on a portion of the project June 1st. On June 17, the California Native American Heritage Commission ruled the site to be a sanctified cemetery and ceremonial site. The Commission ordered Padre to cease construction on the entire project pending mitigation.
Instead, heavy earth moving vehicles continued removing earth even as members of the public unanimously testified on Viejas’ behalf at yesterday’s water board meeting.
This morning, however, construction has ceased, ECM has learned.
Perhaps that’s because of a June 21st letter sent by Attorney General Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown to Padre’s attorney, which ECM obtained today through a public records request. Padre had not previously made public the fact that it has been threatened with legal action by the state over its actions.
Brown’s letter advised the District that the project “has caused, and will cause, irreparable damage to a ceremonial site and a Native American sanctified cemetery.” The letter warned, “this office intends to file a lawsuit against the District promptly to prevent further harm to, and destruction of, the project site. It is our hope that you will comply with the Commission’s request, sent to you today, that the District cease construction/excavation activities at this site pending the District’s review of the commission’s proposed mitigation measures. If you will not agree to the request, please be advised that this office will seek injunctive relief.”
In a separate action, Viejas told ECM that the tribe will ask a Superior Court Judge on Friday to extend her injunction on further construction to include the entire site. That hearing is set for 1 p.m. downtown.
At yesterday’s meeting, Viejas public relations director Robert Scheid expressed the tribal council’s “deep regret” to learn that Padre had “resumed its massive digging operations at the site,” adding, “It continues the District’s display of disrespect for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, their ancestors who are buried at this sacred cemetery, and certainly disrespects the duly-appointed Native American Heritage Commission.”
He noted that the Commission “reasonably called for avoidance of the entire site and called upon Padre to work with Viejas to find a workable alternative,” he said. Scheid further admonished the board that “inviting a legal battle with the California Attorney General’s office is not doing a service to your ratepayers. Instead of taking action to cut your losses, it will potentially increase them considerably for ratepayers.”
Board members could not comment during the public comment portion of the meeting. However Padre public relations representative Mike Uhrhammer met in the lobby with concerned citizens after public testimony. “We are working around the core area where remains were found,” he said, noting that “no skeletons have been found.”
Scheid countered that bone fragments found were from cremated remains and that Uhrhammer’s remark was disrespectful.
Uhrhammer said the Commission’s order only applied to the portion of the property where the remains were found, not the entire site. Viejas disputes that contention, and the document issued by the Native American Heritage Commission appears to support Viejas’ view. The Commission’s June 21 letter to Padre’s attorney James B. Gilpin clearly states the “site located on the Padre Dam Municipal Water Disrict ESASC [Eastern Service Area Secondary Connection Project] project property, including, but not limited to the Archaeological recorded site” should “be avoided and preserved in perpetuity, with appropriate legal protections.”
The Commission further directed Padre to engage in consultation with Viejas to find solutions that respect tribal religious beliefs, customs and practices, which should include tribal monitoring during any agrading or other activity, on or off-site. The letter clearly instructed Padre to “stop all construction immediately until the mitigation measures are accepted or rejected by the District” and added that if work was not halted, the Commission would ask the Attorney General to intervene.
If built, the project would provide a secondary water source to serve 30,000 Padre customers in Blossom Valley, Flinn Springs, Crest, Harbison Canyon and Alpine. The project has been stalled since February, when ancient Native American remains and pottery shards were discovered in what experts have termed an “unparalleled” archaeological find locally.
In a June 14 letter to Padre Dam ratepayers, the District attempted to justify its decision to proceed with construction by stating that “Two weeks ago, after Viejas again demanded that Padre Dam move the project to another site, and with the onset of fire season, Padre Dam came to the difficult conclusion that further delay of the project was no longer an option. In response, Viejas filed a lawsuit against Padre Dam, attempting to stop the project.”
The letter said that aging pipe and pumping system failures could put residents at risk of more damage from firestorms, noting “the importance of water reliability cannot be overstated.” The project is needed to maintain water flow and pressure for firefighting as well as everyday use, Padre’s letter said. Project delays have cost $150,000 a month; moving the project to a new site, if one could be found, would cost approximately $10 million, according to the District.
But Scheid countered, “It has been the District’s own actions that have created this dispute and any related costs for ratepayers.” He noted that the District chose to ignore advice of experts who recommended avoiding the site due to the likelihood of significant cultural heritage and archaeological findings.
Scheid said Viejas does not oppose the project and would benefit by receiving needed water. But he questioned why the District has made no effort to go back to landowners approached back in 2006 about alternative sites to see if some might now be willing to sell.
George Barnett, a retired design and construction engineer for a major oil company, told ECM the project likely could be built elsewhere, including above-ground, potentially at the same site or another. “It probably could be located lots of places,” he suggested, noting that that District also has the power of eminent domain to acquire property if a sale could not be negotiated.
ECM editor Miriam Raftery, who intended merely to cover the meeting, felt compelled to speak after learning that the Board's letter to ratepayers suggested that Viejas is unconcerned about fire protection. She noted that Viejas sponsors the Viejas Wildfire & Emergency Alerts powered by East County Magazine and that the tribe has further built a fire station in Alpine and provided regional firefighting training for city, county, state and federal firefighting forces in our area.
Barnett, who serves on the Alpine Planning Group and with the Backcountry Land Trust, chastised Padre’s Board for sending a representative to the APG who portrayed Viejas as obstructing firefighting efforts and presenting a one-sided message to ratepayers. “They are sweating muscle and clearing hundreds of acres,” said Barnett, who called the Board’s actions “downright improper.” He asked Padre to refrain from tactics that “serve to divide the community of Alpine” and further called on the Board to honor the Native American Heritage Commission’s declaration and work with Viejas to find an alternative solution.
After the meeting, Barnett told ECM that artifacts even older than the circa-500 AD remains already carbon-dated may be found. At one nearby site in East County, he noted, “some 5,000 year old Native American remains were excavated…they found firing with rudimentary porcelain; it’s important for any find to be properly analyzed.” He contended that Padre’s actions and statements are “racist” and “anti-Indian.”
Viejas has called for a full assessment of 100% of the site, not the 6% that Padre has done, now that significant items have been found. But Padre has refused. One assessment of items already found on site suggest that the findinges "teach us about the introduction of the bow and arrow into San Diego County," said Scheid.
Laura Cyphert, co-founder of the East County Community Action Coalition, which represents groups with 79,000 individuals, said she was “quite moved to hear of the discovery” of the artifacts but was shocked to learn that Padre was continuing construction. “I find it embarrassing that the Viejas Band had to get a restraining order to stop desecration,” she said. “You’re not too far down that road to do the right thing,” she added, echoing Barnett’s call for the Board to work with Viejas toward a solution.
Boulevard Planning Group chair Donna Tisdale, founder of BackCountry Against Dumps, has spent two decades battling a landfill site proposed by the Campo Indians. “Today, I come to speak on behalf of Viejas,” she said, urging the Board to halt construction and find a way to mitigate damage in ways acceptable to Viejas or locate an alternative site.
Padre has contended that Viejas raised objections too late in the process, but Viejas points out that the tribe became involved immediately after remains were found and the Native American Heritage Commission notified Viejas that it considered tribal members to be the most likely descendants. Remains of several individuals have been found thus far amid an area marked by a circle of rocks on the site.
Viejas said that Chamber of Commerce leaders and Santee Mayor Randy Voepel have sent letters in support of the tribe’s position.
Mark Hanson, Democratic candidate for the 77th Assembly meeting, told community leaders present that he also back Viejas. “They’ve had this land for 10,000 years and been good stewards,” he noted. “They are our first protection against fires. They are major employers. Every effort has not been done to find another property—this is a matter of cultural sustainability.”
“We’ve put all kinds of options on the table,” Scheid told citizens after the meeting, to which Uhrhammer accused Scheid of “misrepresentation” and claimed that in meeting behind closed doors, Viejas had been unwilling to negotiate.
ECM editor Miriam Raftery suggested to Uhrhammer that to alleviate that concern, Padre hold a meeting with Viejas leaders and invite media to be present. But Uhrhammer declined the suggestion. “It’s not appropriate to have media present during mediation.”
Raymond Lutz, Democratic Congressional candidate in the 52nd district, echoed that suggestion in an e-mail sent to ECM today. "The audacity of these elected officials to sidestep normal processing and to thwart the orders of the state commission is, unfortunately, typical of the sort of actions that occur if no one is watching. As the founder of COPS -- Citizens' Oversight Projects -- I support the oversight of this group,” said Lutz, who called on Padre officials to follow proper procedures in locating a new reservoir site.
“The history of Native Americans is our history, but far too often it is regarded as "their history" and disregarded as unimportant,” he added. “The public should demand that the negotiations be carried out in public, to avoid accusations of being disingenuous, particularly if the private party accepts that arrangement. I support Viejas in their attempt to preserve Native American artifacts and sacred burial grounds."
Scheid acknowledged Uhrhammer for his willingness to meet with concerned community members amid a contentious environment.
“Thank you for coming out here and taking some arrows,” the tribal representative concluded.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story quoted Thompson stating he did not see a Native American observer at the dig site. Viejas spokesman Robert Scheid has since clarified that Padre Dam did have a Native American observer onsite, just not in the area where Thompson was taking photographs.