On Friday, May 13, the United States Department of Justice filed a motion with the U.S. District Court seeking to file a complaint in support of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, whose nearly 32,000-acre reservation is located in Riverside County, California. The complaint goes against the Desert Water Agency (DWA), the water utility for the Palm Springs area, and the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD).
In the complaint, the federal government asks the court to declare that the United States holds, on behalf of the Agua Caliente band, 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 district from overdrafting the groundwater in the Coachella Valley because it injures and infringes upon the “senior reserved rights of the tribe.”
According to Jeff L. Grubbe, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the motion is significant because it provides ample proof that the Agua Caliente band’s claims against CVWD and DWA are well-founded and that the serious matters the band raises in this case need to be addressed. The road that led to this official complaint, he said, has been a long one.
“Even before I was on the council, the tribe was involved with water issues,” Grubbe said. “We were concerned with conservation and the state of our water supply. We live in the desert, and water is our most important resource.”
He said the Agua Caliente leadership felt that CVWD, formed in 1918 specifically to protect and conserve water resources, wasn’t taking an active role in fulfilling its mission.
“We had a civil relationship, but they just weren’t taking our concerns to heart,” he said. “So in the last five to seven years, the council decided to step up its efforts regarding our water rights. Unfortunately, the discussions didn’t go anywhere. The lack of respect for the tribe, and the lack of respect for the water, was very upsetting to us.”
According to the complaint, outflows from the Coachella Valley Groundwater Basin aquifer generally have exceeded inflows for decades; this condition is known as overdraft. And demands from off-reservation agriculture, resorts and homeowners’ associations compete with the Agua Caliente Reservation’s homeland needs.
“The tribe and individual allottees necessarily rely on groundwater to satisfy domestic, cultural, commercial and other needs,” the complaint stated. “Groundwater in the Coachella Valley Groundwater Basin aquifer is in limited supply and is needed to satisfy the present and future needs of the tribe and individual allottees. Defendants’ withdrawal and use of groundwater injures and infringes upon the senior reserved rights of the tribe and individual allottees, and adversely affects their ability to exercise their reserved rights to that groundwater.”
Grubbe said that, over time, water rates continued to increase significantly, yet water quality and conservation were not getting any better.
“They kept pushing the issue off, but in 10 or 20 years, the situation is going to get a whole lot worse and a lot more expensive,” he said. “California’s been in the news a lot lately, with the drought, fires and water issues, and there are going to be more times like this.
“One of the last letters the tribe received from the defendants said that we have no rights to the water — that it belongs to the whole valley,” he continued. “That’s what finally did it for us. We realized that the only real way to address our concerns was to take action.”
The U.S. Department of Justice filed its initial motion to intervene in May 2013. “The United States holds title to the water rights at issue in trust for the benefit of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians… and allottees,” the motion stated. “Accordingly, intervention is proper because the United States has a significant interest, in its own right and as a trustee for the tribe and allottees, in protecting the federal reserved rights to groundwater associated with the tribe’s reservation.”
The U.S. District Court granted the motion to intervene, making the United States the “plaintiff-intervenor” in the action. This allowed the U.S. Department of Justice to file the formal complaint.
In a joint May 23 press release, the CVWD and DWA announced that they won’t oppose the motion. The motion was anticipated by the agencies, the release said, since the U.S. Department of Justice holds the reservation lands in trust for the tribe. Both agencies filed statements of non-opposition on May 23.
“We anticipated this action, given the Department of Justice actually owns the reservation land,” said DWA Board President Craig Ewing. “That being said, our public agencies will continue to protect our groundwater basin and prudently provide water supplies to the residents of the Coachella Valley, as we always have.”
Grubbe said the motion is an important step in the Agua Caliente band’s fight to protect the future of Coachella Valley’s water supply.
“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,” Grubbe explained. “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.”
Grubbe also noted that this is important recognition, at the federal level, of treaty rights and the sovereign status of Indian nations.
“This is a big deal for all of Indian country,” he said.