Supreme Court upholds lower court ruling, won’t hear water agencies’ appeal on groundwater rights

By on November 28, 2017

A plea by two desert water agencies for the United States Supreme Court to hear an appeal regarding an earlier decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding a lawsuit by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has been denied. The two water agencies – Desert Water Agency (DWA) and the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) – had taken issue with the lower court’s decision which stated that the Agua Caliente Indians had groundwater rights from the reservation’s creation in the late 1800s by the federal government. The tribe asserted in 2013 that they had unprecedented rights to groundwater underneath the tribe’s reservation, superseding all other water users.

Water rights throughout the Coachella Valley have previously been shared. The ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court and the decision by the Supreme Court to not hear the case, will now return the case to the federal district court for adjudication and division of water resources between the Tribe and the valley’s agriculture, businesses, golf communities and residents as well as other Coachella Valley tribes.

“We are disappointed in the decision because we believe the water in this valley is a shared resource that belongs to everyone,” said CVWD Board President John Powell, Jr. “The Tribe has always had access to as much water as they requested, but now they have secured a water right that is superior to every other resident and business in the Coachella Valley.”

The Agua Caliente Tribe has some 440 members and a hopscotch of 31,000 acres of reservation land in multiple valley cities. The Tribe has not publicly indicated how it will use the water nor have they said how much water they want to access. The Tribe currently buys water from the two local agencies but had questioned some of their practices and decisions in recent years. The Tribe claims that the local agencies have depleted the aquifer ’s during the state’s recent five-plus year drought and have not returned enough water to match historic water levels. The Tribe contends that the water districts have, instead, purchased polluted water from the Colorado River to replenish the aquifer’s water levels.  Subsequently the Tribe says that instead of pre-treating this water, the water districts put the water, as is, into the aquifer, which has significantly lowered the quality of water. DWA and CVWD refute that assertion saying water from the Colorado River meets all current drinking water standards. Numerous other water agencies also purchase Colorado River water and all agencies are held to the same standard in California.

CVWD and DWA have stated that they are concerned that water rates will likely increase as water availability becomes more limited.

“This case could completely change water management in our area, said DWA Board President Jim Cioffi. “We will continue to protect the interests of the community through this lawsuit and any efforts to divvy up local groundwater rights.”

Moving forward the federal District Court will likely need to engage in a full groundwater adjudication, dividing the water resources between the Agua Caliente Tribe and the residents, businesses, agricultural and golf communities and other tribes. DWA and CVWD expect this to be a “lengthy and expensive legal process for all waters users in the Coachella Valley.”