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Water Rights Lawsuit


The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (Agua Caliente) filed a lawsuit against Desert Water Agency (DWA) and Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) in May 2013, claiming rights, above all other water users, to the Coachella Valley region’s groundwater – the water used to supply drinking water to the Coachella Valley community. Agua Caliente’s lawsuit aims to take rights to water away from local residents – potentially leaving families and businesses paying more for water. 

Click here to read our most recent   pdf statement on this case

Read the Petition for US Supreme Court review (July 7, 2017).

Coachella Valley groundwater has always been available for supply to the public, which includes the Agua Caliente. It is a shared resource, managed for the benefit of all. DWA and CVWD firmly believe that everyone, including the Agua Caliente, should have access to a clean, affordable and reliable water supply. The agencies continue to fight the lawsuit to protect the public’s water rights and ensure customers’ access to an affordable and reliable water supply.

The case is broken into three phases. We are currently in phase II. Read more below to learn about the status of the case.

Phase I - water rights

Phase II - rights to storage and water quality

Phase III - quantification of rights (how much water Agua Caliente would be entitled to)

Current Status

The Supreme Court denied review of the case on November 27, 2017. This means that the 9th Circuit ruling that the Agua Caliente has a reserved right to water remains in effect. The case will continue at the district court level in phases II and III.

Desert Water Agency request for Supreme Court review

9th Circuit ruling

A federal trial court ruled the Agua Caliente does not have an aboriginal right (a right that predates the federal government) but does have a reserved right (right to water necessary to fulfill the primary purpose of a reservation) to the region’s groundwater. However, the ruling acknowledged that there is legitimate room for disagreement over whether the law currently supports a reserved right to groundwater for Agua Caliente. 

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the water agencies' appeal, upholding the Agua Caliente's reserved right to groundwater. The Supreme Court denied an opportunity to review the lower court ruling.

DWA and CVWD will continue to advance their defense of the public’s water rights during the next phases of the case.

Current Status of the Coachella Valley Groundwater Basin:
DWA and CVWD have been responsible stewards, leading the way in defining what a sustainable groundwater basin should look like. Years ago, DWA and CVWD engineered a cutting-edge approach to groundwater management that has become a model for programs nationwide by placing our region’s groundwater basin on a long-term path to sustainability.

Actively replenishing the basin with water imported from the Colorado River has not only increased groundwater elevation, it has also improved water quality. For example, the replenished Colorado River water has diluted a naturally-occurring element found in groundwater called chromium-6 (Cr6), making DWA one of a handful of agencies already in compliance with the state’s new, stringent Cr6 standard. It would be irresponsible not to utilize this resource for groundwater replenishment. Other water management experts agree – Colorado River water serves as a source of drinking water for 33 million people and is used by water agencies throughout the state and in other states for groundwater replenishment.

The water DWA provides meets or exceeds all state and federal water quality standards.

If Agua Caliente prevails, the outcome would significantly impact the Coachella Valley community.

Impacts to Region’s Water Supply: Agua Caliente hasn’t said what it would do with the water. But, unlike DWA and CVWD – government agencies with publicly-elected boards of directors and accountability to the public – the Agua Caliente is exempt from California’s stringent environmental laws, open meeting laws and drought restrictions. If the Tribe were to use the public’s drinking water to build a lake, irrigate golf courses or build a water bottling plant, current customers would be the big losers. Coachella Valley residents could find themselves solely reliant on imported water supplies to satisfy their household needs. The Agua Caliente does not have any pipes, pumps, infrastructure or expertise in water management. The Tribe could decide to sell the water back to the public for whatever price they wish – ultimately driving up rates for local residents and businesses.

Direct Impacts to DWA Customers: If forced to buy water from the Agua Caliente, DWA and CVWD would have to raise water rates. If the Tribe prevails and doesn’t sell the water back to the public, the agencies would lose access to some or all of existing water supplies, forcing substantial cutbacks in water delivered to customers, higher rates, potential building moratoriums and damage to the region’s economy.

Water Rights Lawsuit Library

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