When the Trinidad Rancheria received state approval in August on its controversial hotel development, it came with a strong condition: that the tribe find a suitable water source to sustain the five-story, 100-room building.
Six months later, it’s unclear where the water will come from. State Coastal Commission staff say they haven’t been contacted by the Trinidad Rancheria since last fall, shortly after the commission voted to find the project consistent with California’s coastal policies.
The state’s decision came after the Rancheria touted an 11th-hour finding of an ocean well in Trinidad Harbor, which it called a promising future water source. Months later, however, the city of Trinidad received word from the tribe that the hotel will still need the city’s water — a volume that could amount to about 10,000 gallons a day, city manager Eli Naffah said Friday.
“They’re optimistic about securing a part of their needs with the well, but we don’t know for sure how much they need,” Naffah said. “For us, it’s really hard to say how much water we can provide.”
In January, the engineering firm GHD provided to the Trinidad City Council an analysis of the city’s water capacity: current water storage was sufficient, but “there is minimal reserve in the event of drought or emergency.”
The analysis also warned climate change over the coming decades — higher temperatures and reduced fog — could dry up water flows in the Luffenholtz Creek. The city’s Planning Commission is now finalizing a standardized water policy to dictate how the city’s supply can be used.
“Once you get into the summertime and the flows in the river get lower, and it ends up being a drought year, it would be anybody’s prediction as to how much water we’ll have,” Naffah said.
Meanwhile, the commission’s staff has not heard back from the Rancheria since September.
“We’ve reached out a couple times — just more from a, ‘If there’s a need for us to touch base, let’s chat if there’s progress,’” said commission staff member John Weber. “That hasn’t resulted in any substantive conversations.”
David Tyson, the Trinidad Rancheria’s hotel project official, said earlier this week he did not receive authorization from the tribe to provide comment for this story. Rancheria CEO Jacque Hostler-Carmesin didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
The proposed hotel has drawn opposition from Trinidad residents who say the massive building would obstruct the city’s scenic harbor view and otherwise rustic development. At meetings over the course of a year, critics questioned the hotel’s environmental impacts — especially the building’s water supply.
Rancheria officials made major adjustments to the hotel’s size and design. By the time the project came in front of the commission a second time (after an objection earlier in the year), the tribe launched an all-out push to see the hotel through to approval.
After the August meeting, tribal chairman Garth Sundberg told the Times-Standard that the Rancheria would have pushed on even if the commission objected again — a persistence that could’ve opened the tribe to a major legal challenge.
Among the hotel’s critics is 5th District Humboldt County Supervisor Steve Madrone, who questions the viability of the underwater well in Trinidad Harbor.
“They have their work cut out for them to be able to determine if that well is going to work out or not,” Madrone said of the Rancheria. “They’re going to have to do a pretty serious hydrological investigation to be able to document that they’ll be able to use that well.”
A hydrologist himself, Madrone said the tribe’s estimates of available water is “all over the place.” Even on the low end of the numbers, the water would be difficult to pump and could impact other nearby wells, he said. And in general, the supervisor opposes the idea of an oversized hotel structure on Trinidad’s coastal bluffs.
“I frankly would love to support the Rancheria’s desire for economic development,” said Madrone, who won his supervisor seat in 2018 by defeating Rancheria member Ryan Sundberg. “They are a sovereign nation. But whether or not you’re sovereign, or have private property rights, you still have a responsibility to not impact your neighbors.”
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.