The United States Supreme Court announced Monday it will not review a court decision in a lawsuit that the Agua Caliente Tribe filed against Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency in 2013 seeking unprecedented rights to groundwater, superseding all other water users.
The decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, granting superior rights to groundwater to the tribe will remain in effect.
“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.”
Water rights have always been shared by the public, including the Agua Caliente and its approximately 440 members.
Agua Caliente Tribe has not said publicly how much water the tribe wants access to or how it would use that water.
According to Desert Water Agency, the litigation process began in 2013 when Agua Caliente filed a lawsuit seeking rights to the groundwater. The initial ruling determined that Agua Caliente does have priority rights, which DWA officials said opened up the door for court-approved control of the groundwater basin.
In 2013, the tribe claimed the CVWD and DWA have been over-drafting from the aquifer for years and recharging it with water from the Colorado River “which contains higher total dissolved solids, nitrates, pesticides, and other contaminants.”
The tribe claimed this recharge water is injected into the Coachella Valley aquifer “at a facility close to the Tribe’s lands.”
Following this decision, the water agencies expect a lengthy and expensive legal process for all water users in the Coachella Valley.
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.
CVWD and DWA expect rates to 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.”
In a press release, CVWD and DWA said they carefully managed local water resources through years of drought for the community as a whole. The tribe’s control over groundwater could frustrate attempts to manage groundwater for the future and undermine the state’s groundwater regulation system.
The water agencies said the tribe is a private entity that is not required to comply with state sustainability laws or share water management information.
CVWD and DWA believe Monday’s decision would impact state and local efforts to manage groundwater resources efficiently, citing that 10 states and multiple organizations weighed in to support the local water agencies’ petition to be heard by the Supreme Court.
The next phase of the lawsuit is to determine whether the tribe owns storage space within the groundwater basins, is currently underway.
Agua Caliente issued this statement on the Supreme Court’s decision:
“Today, the Supreme Court denied DWA and CVWD’s request to review the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that the Agua Caliente Reservation has a federal reserved right to groundwater,” Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe said. “Because of the Supreme Court’s decision, the favorable rulings from the federal district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recognizing and protecting the Reservation’s federal water right are now settled law.”
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