Federal Court Dismisses Key Claims in Agua Caliente Tribe’s Water Lawsuit Against Public Agencies

By on May 14, 2019

Litigation that began in 2013 when the and two Coachella Valley water agencies — Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and Desert Water Agency (DWA) – has taken major steps toward resolution when the federal court recently ruled that the Tribe has not harmed because it has always had access to as much high-quality water as it needs. However, the recent federal court decision upholds an earlier ruling that the Tribe had certain reserved water rights but whatever rights the Tribe owns, it presented no evidence that the water agencies have done anything to injure the Tribe. Indeed, the water agencies have always provided the Tribe all of the water it needs, as the Tribe’s own expert witness confirmed.

Additionally, the Tribe was never threatened by CVWD and DWA with having the water services cut off or reduced for any of the Agua Caliente interests. The court wrote that the Tribe did not have standing because “there is no evidence that the Tribe will not be able to access sufficient water to fulfill any particular purpose, much less the purposes of the reservation.”

“Our top priority is and always has been to protect our groundwater supplies to ensure a sustainable, reliable water future for everyone in the Coachella Valley,” said CVWD Board President, John Powell, Jr. “We are part of this community and we are committed to its environmental and economic success.”

The two water agencies indicated have spent decades working to ensuring a safe, reliable water supply to all users in the Coachella Valley, including the five tribes in the basin. CVWD and DWA currently deliver water to Agua Caliente casinos, golf courses, hotels, and other developments. The agencies also serve thousands of homes and businesses that lease Agua Caliente land.

The 2013 litigation was initiated when the Tribe filed a lawsuit seeking rights to groundwater and to halt the agencies’ importation of Colorado River water to the Coachella Valley—a lifeblood of water supply to the region. CVWD and DWA have imported more than 3.5 million-acre feet of water and have slowed and reversed the effects of historic overdraft in the region. The two public agencies have developed a variety of plans to protect water quantity and quality with the feedback of the community and stakeholders, including the valley’s tribes.

Under the court’s decision, the agencies’ recharge operations are free to continue providing critical water supply. The Agua Caliente Tribe, which has approximately 440 members, has not said publicly how much water it thinks it is entitled to or what it would do with that water.

The court’s recent ruling stated that the Tribe does not have standing or the right to pursue a lawsuit against CVWD and/or DWA. The one remaining claim in the Agua Caliente Tribe’s lawsuit is the so-called “narrow issue” of whether the Tribe has an ownership interest in storage space for groundwater under its reservation, according to the court.

“The Agua Caliente Band of Indians is an important partner in our region,” said DWA Board President, Joseph Stuart. “We hope to resolve the single, narrow remaining issue and continue working alongside them as we manage this precious resource.”