Coachella Valley water agencies request Supreme Court review of Agua Caliente’s water rights ruling

By on March 31, 2017
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The Coachella Valley Water district (CVWD) and Desert Water Agency (DWA) are seeking intervention of a recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court — a three-judge federal appeals court panel – by requesting a review by the U.S. Supreme Court. The landmark groundwater case, in litigation since 2013, was filed by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians as they sought rights to groundwater in the Coachella Valley.

The publicly elected CVWD and DWA boards of directors have indicated that they plan to submit a formal request for review to the Supreme Court as early as this summer in hopes that the Supreme Court will decide by this fall whether to accept or deny the review. At issue is whether Agua Caliente has a federally established right to groundwater beneath the tribe’s reservation.

If the Supreme Court decides to review the case and reverses the lower court ruling, it would end litigation on this matter. If the Supreme Court does not review the case or upholds the lower court ruling, the case would continue on to determine if the Agua Caliente has a right to water quality and water storage, and, finally, how much water Agua Caliente is entitled to. The final determination of the case is likely to be precedent-setting for tribes across the country.

“Granting control of the groundwater to the Tribe could seriously affect the future of this valley,” said CVWD Board President, John Powell. “We represent the public and have been working to protect their supply for today and tomorrow. It only makes sense to pursue an appeal on behalf of all the water users in the Coachella Valley.”

Aqua Caliente contends that the rate of the water drawn from the local aquifer has depleted natural levels, also known as “over-drafting” of the aquifer. The tribe asserts that the rate of use has meant that the natural replenishment cycle has not been able to return sufficient water to match historic water levels. In turn, water districts began importing low-quality water from the Colorado River to replenish the water levels in the aquifer. The water districts put the water – instead of pre-treating the water – directly into the aquifer which according to the tribe has significantly degraded the quality of the natural groundwater.

Agua Caliente has stated that it would like the agencies to stop replenishing the groundwater basin with imported, untreated Colorado River water, a practice that has prevented groundwater levels from falling drastically, even as the valley has grown. The Colorado River is a source of drinking water for about 33 million people. CVWD and DWA have stated that the water served in the Coachella Valley is some of the best in the nation and meets all federal and state standards.

“We don’t know how much water the Agua Caliente want or what they would do with it but they have said that they are an entrepreneurial organization,” said DWA Board President, James Cioffi. “CVWD and DWA serve but don’t own the water. We are stewards that manage local water openly and transparently without a profit.

CVWD and DWA have delivered water to Agua Caliente’s hotels, casinos and golf courses for years; the agencies also serve thousands of homes and businesses built on tribal land along with the tribe’s approximately 480 members. Aqua Caliente has sought recognition of its ownership interest in groundwater in the Coachella Valley along with its interest in responsible water management of the aquifer’s condition for some 20 years.

CVWD’s board of directors has engaged the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP to supplement the current legal representation provided by Redwine and Sherrill. Much of the groundwork for seeking review in the U.S. Supreme Court has been already been completed.