Drought Should Limit Casino, Group Says

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (CN) — A $160 million casino expansion will suck another 12.8 million gallons of water a year illegally from the drought-ravaged Santa Ynez Valley, north of Santa Barbara, a community group claims in court.
     The Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians, who have run the Chumash Casino Resort since 2004, say the expansion will not threaten water supplies, and will create 250 new jobs in a community that thrives on tourism. The tribe is transforming its casino into a Vegas-worthy resort, with a 12-story tower over rural Santa Ynez, former home to Michael Jackson and scenic backdrop to the movie “Sideways.”
     Despite state and county water emergencies, the state and local governments have not done anything to rein in the development, plaintiff Save the Valley says in the May 3 complaint in Santa Barbara County Court.
     Save the Valley did not sue the tribe or the casino; they sued California, Santa Barbara County, and the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District — Improvement District No. 1.
     Save the Valley says a deed restriction on 75¾ acres of federal land in the valley “restricted the use of water on the property to domestic use only.”
     But the Chumash have been operating the casino on the 75¾ acres and plan to dig more wells on it for commercial use: 35,000 gallons a day, or 40 acre-feet a year, according to the lawsuit.
     The casino-resort includes 2,000 gaming devices and an auditorium, which has hosted Fleetwood Mac, James Brown, Toby Keith and other major acts. The expanded casino, which will triple the size of the hotel, is expected to open May 20.
     This is the third lawsuit Save the Valley has filed to try to stop the project. The first two were both dismissed, according to the Lompoc Record. The group claimed in Federal Court that the Chumash reservation was “not a federal Indian reservation,” and claimed in Superior Court that the tribe had not signed a Williamson Act assumption agreement when it bought a parcel of land in Santa Ynez.
     This time, the group says the state, the county and the Water Conservation District are legally bound to stop the project, not just because it will violate the deed restriction, but because both the state and county have declared a water shortage emergency.
     “If the court does not prohibit the proposed illegal use of massive quantities of water … plaintiff, the community and the environment will be subjected to increased drought, increased cost of water, wells going dry, and severe water shortages to sustain the agriculture industries predominant in the areas, among other things,” the group says in its request for an injunction.
     The Catholic Church transferred the 75¾ acres to the federal government in 1935 with the deed restriction, according to the complaint.
     In 2014, when Save the Valley began fighting the expansion, then-Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta told the Los Angeles Times the project would not affect water supplies, and that the resort had been using less water than it was allocated.
     “We’re using less water now than we were using 10 years ago” Armenta told the Times, citing the tribes conservation effort.
     But Attorney General Kamala Harris wrote to Armenta, expressing concerns that the tribe had not considered alternatives to the tower, its visual impact or the potential for increased water use, the Times reported.
     County officials also expressed concerns. But the tribe pointed out that the Chumash have lived in the Santa Ynez Valley for 8,000 years
     “As far as Santa Ynez being a nice place, we’re aware of that,” Armenta told Bloomberg News Service in December 2015. “We’ve been here well before the town was even being developed, and before the movie stars came.”
     Be that as it may, Save the Valley says, California is suffering its worst drought in 1,200 years, and the state, county and the irrigation district have all declared water emergencies.
     Undaunted, the casino held a job fair in March, taking application for the 250 jobs the project is expected to create.
     Save the Valley wants the defendants to stop the tribe from using the extra water unless and until the water emergency is over. It is represented by Matthew Clarke with Christman, Kelley & Clarke, in Santa Barbara.

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