Court says water agencies have not harmed the Tribe

A federal court announced on Friday, April 19, 2019 that the Agua Caliente Tribe was not harmed because it has always had access to as much high-quality water as it needs. The judge ruled that the Tribe does not have standing, the right to pursue a lawsuit against the local public water agencies, Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and Desert Water Agency (DWA). The only claim remaining in the Tribe’s lawsuit is the “narrow issue” of whether the Tribe has an ownership interest in storage space for groundwater under its reservation, the court wrote.

“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 water agencies have spent decades ensuring a safe, reliable water supply to all users in the Coachella Valley, including the five tribes in the basin. Both agencies remain committed to long-term water sustainability.

The court’s latest decision follows an earlier ruling that the Tribe had certain reserved water rights. Its decision confirms that 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.

“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.”

CVWD and DWA currently deliver water to Agua Caliente hotels, casinos, golf courses, and other developments. The agencies also serve thousands of homes and businesses that lease Agua Caliente land. The agencies have never threatened to cut off or reduce water service for the Agua Caliente. Accordingly, the court wrote, 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.”

For more than 50 years, CVWD and DWA have been working together to manage the valley’s water resources. Together, the agencies 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 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.

The litigation began in 2013 when Agua Caliente 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. 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.

Redwine & Sherrill LLP, O’Melveny & Myers LLP, and Best, Best & Krieger LLP represented the agencies in the litigation. Buzz Thompson of O’Melveny commented, “We are very thankful for the time and attention the Court paid to this matter. Water cases not only require a great deal of work, but can impact whole communities—in this case, millions of people and a multi-billion-dollar economy.”

For more information about this lawsuit, visit DWA here and CVWD here.