The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, filed suit to protect the water future of the Coachella Valley.
The local water is being depleted and polluted due to decades of failed water management by the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and the Desert Water Agency (DWA).
The lawsuit seeks to protect and preserve of our most precious natural resource - water - and stop the continuing pollution and overdrafting of the aquifer in the Upper Valley.
Protecting water should be a central objective for CVWD and DWA.
But they have consistently failed to take necessary steps to ensure the quality and future availability of the Valley's groundwater.
That is their unfortunate record, and that record compelled the Tribe's action.
The Tribe is fighting to ensure the adoption of better water stewardship policies as soon as possible; to stop continued water degradation; and to protect the water supply for everyone in the Coachella Valley.
First, the Tribe is asking the Court to declare the existence of their water rights as the senior rights in the Upper Whitewater Sub-basin of the Coachella Valley Basin under federal law.
Second, the Tribe seeks a quantification of these rights.
Third, the Tribe is asking the Court to prevent CVWD and DWA from further injuring the Tribe and residents throughout the Valley by impairing the quantity and quality of water in the aquifer.
The fact is CVWD and DWA have failed to properly and prudently manage the water in the Valley and that failure threatens the future of the Valley's residents.
The water districts have ignored the concerns voiced by the Tribe and the United States for many years. The Tribe expects to be treated as a government, as other federal, state and local governments have treated us through numerous intergovernmental agreements.
By prevailing in court, the Tribe expects to have a stronger say in protecting and preserving the water supply for all communities throughout the Coachella Valley.
The Tribe made every effort to avoid this scenario and to work with CVWD and DWA to protect the quantity and the quality of water in the local aquifer.
For more than a decade, the Tribe urged them to stop the overdrafting of the aquifer and protect the quality of the water.
The Tribe presented common-sense alternatives to address these water issues and attempted to work with the water districts to find a negotiated solution.
Unfortunately, the Tribe's repeated attempts to resolve these issues were met by refusals to have meaningful discussions. Correspondence between the Tribe and the water districts over the past decades and up until this past year proves this point.
In fact, when answering the Tribe's invitation to negotiate, DWA's lawyer responded, "any attempt to resolve the disagreement through the negotiation process likely would be unproductive." CVWD responded similarly.
Even the United States Department of Interior has tried to engage DWA and CVWD on these issues, but to no avail.
The water agencies refused to listen, failed to act, and left the Tribe with no other choice but to bring a suit.
The water is not fine. Even their own documents attest to the fact that the local water is being depleted and polluted. Federal studies and reports support this fact.
Both the 2002 and 2010 Coachella Valley Water Management Plans noted that "(health-based) drinking water impacts" from the Colorado River recharge are "significant" and that since the 1970s, total dissolved solids in the Upper Valley aquifer increased by 278%!
In the 2009 USGS Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment (GAMA) Program study for the Coachella Valley, perchlorate was detected in twelve of thirty-five wells sampled with concentrations at two exceeding the California Department of Public Health maximum contaminant level (MCL-CA) of 6 μg/l. (USGS GAMA 2009, p. 1). The two wells exceeding the MCL were located within the boundaries of the CVWD.
The water districts' solutions focus solely on one source - the Colorado River. Because Colorado River water is polluted, bringing it into the Valley for recharge without pre-treatment only makes a bad situation worse. Moreover, the water districts have not found supplies to fully and reliably offset the quantities of water currently being tapped from the aquifer.
Essentially, the water districts import and then fail to treat substantially lower quality water from the Colorado River and inject that water into the aquifer.
The recharge water, which contains toxins - higher total dissolved solids, nitrates, pesticides, and other contaminants - is reinjected into the aquifer at a facility close to the Tribe's lands.
Thus, the groundwater in the Western Coachella Valley, which includes our Reservation, the cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, and Thousand Palms, is being polluted at a faster rate than the aquifer down-valley.
Unfortunately, CVWD and DWA have failed to put forward effective plans to stop these increasing levels of toxins.
They have not proven to be responsible managers either when it comes to water quantity or water quality.
This has significant negative consequences for residents of the Coachella Valley, including subsidence, decreased water quality, decreased storage capacity and increased groundwater extraction costs for all groundwater users and residents.
Let's be clear. The Tribe and its members are part of this community too. Tribal members are also water users and ratepayers and they understand that less water and dirtier water is bad for everyone.
Under CVWD and DWA, water users have been paying more and more each year for lesser quality water. The Tribe wants to change that.
No water users will be cut off. The solution is to bring more and better quality into the water into the Valley. But that will take a cooperative approach. Right now, due to the water districts' intransigence, there is not a cooperative approach.
The Tribe is doing this for the sake of ensuring water security in the Coachella Valley, not just for the Tribe and its members, but for all the residents of the Coachella Valley.
The Tribe's first priority is to address the overdraft of the aquifer and halt further degradation of the water quality.
This Tribe has a long history of effective and prudent stewardship for resources within our care. An example is Indian Canyons where we have made the necessary investments for successful management of this precious area. We will use the same approach here.
On June 25, 2014, the United States Department of Justice filed a Complaint in support of Agua Caliente and against Desert Water Agency and Coachella Valley Water District. This step by the United States is significant because it provides further proof that Agua Caliente's claims are well-founded and that the serious matters Agua Caliente raises in this case need to be addressed.
"This is a significant step in our fight to protect the future of Coachella Valley's water supply," said Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe, of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. "For more than 20 years, the Tribe and the United States have raised concerns about the overdraft of the Valley's aquifer and degradation of the drinking water. We are working to ensure the Valley has a clean, abundant drinking water supply for generations. This move by the United States further proves the value and importance of our case against the water districts."
In the Complaint, the United States asks the Court to declare that the United States holds, on behalf of Agua Caliente, federally reserved rights to groundwater in sufficient quantities "to foster promote, and fulfill the purposes for which the Reservation was set aside." The United States also seeks to stop the water districts from overdrafting the groundwater in the Coachella Valley because it injures and infringes upon the senior reserved rights of the Tribe.
Q: How do you respond to DWA and CVWD claims that this is just a money grab and that the suit will harm the economy?
These are scare tactics by the water districts designed to hide the fact that they have mismanaged the Valley's water for so long.
This is not about money, it is about ending the mismanagement of our water resources and protecting it for generations of Coachella Valley residents to come.
Those with a long memory know the Tribe has been an active participant in improving our community, whether through charitable contributions to infrastructure improvements or to funding for school and public safety programs.
The Tribe understands that it will only prosper if the entire community prospers.
When the Court confirms the Tribe's senior and federal reserved rights to the groundwater resources in the Valley, the biggest difference will be there will be a government in the Valley that will be working with other governments - federal, state and local - to achieve creative solutions that will ensure higher water quality and water security for the present and future needs of the Tribe and the residents in the Coachella Valley.
Q: How can the Tribe claim water rights when CVWD and DWA have managed it for such a long period of time?
While this is ultimately about fixing the current mismanagement of the Valley's water, the Tribe does have a historical and legal basis for asserting its water rights.
The Cahuilla Indians, ancestors of the present day Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, have lived in the Coachella Valley since time immemorial.
The Tribe has senior rights to the groundwater resources of the Valley, which they have developed and relied on for centuries for traditional cultural, domestic and agricultural subsistence purposes.
Under long settled federal law, the United States' establishment of the Tribe's Reservation also, by definition, reserved to the Tribe and its members the right to surface water and groundwater sufficient to accomplish the purposes of the Reservation, the priority date of which is the date of the creation of the Reservation.
Therefore, the Tribe's groundwater rights are the most senior in the Coachella Valley, predating all water rights decreed, or otherwise claimed under California State law.
Despite the Tribe's senior rights, the water districts have ignored and infringed upon those rights for more than a century.
There has been a prolonged history of mismanaging the Valley's water. The Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency of the Coachella Valley have a history of poor management decisions that have adversely affected the quantity and quality of the groundwater in the Coachella Valley for decades.
These water districts have admitted to continually overdrafting the groundwater resources, which is imprudent, causes significant environmental damage, and jeopardizes the future of all the Valley's residents.
To make matters worse still, the water districts import and then fail to adequately treat substantially lower quality water from the Colorado River and inject such water into the aquifer.
The water districts had the opportunity to import cleaner water from Northern California decades ago through the State Water Project, but opted instead to cut a deal with Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles that gave MWD and its customers rights to the clean water instead. MWD did not have to pay a premium for this cleaner water, as it should have - it was a bucket for bucket exchange. Coachella Valley residents are now paying the price for that sweetheart deal and unless things change, they will for many years to come.
The pollution of this precious resource must end.
The United States asserted Agua Caliente's surface and groundwater rights in the 1920s and 1930s in what was known as the Whitewater Adjudication. The court there was only deciding surface water rights. The Tribe received rights from two creeks, but not enough to meet all its needs, and the needs of its members.
In recent decades, the Tribe has attempted time and time again to have these troubling concerns - overdrafting and pollution of the aquifer - addressed by the water districts.
The Tribe brings this action now because it has become clear that despite our best efforts to find a resolution, the water districts are not interested in cooperatively addressing these challenges in a responsible and prudent manner.