Bumblebee Linens

As reported on CircleOfBlue.com, while the state of California implements a landmark law to balance demand for groundwater with available supplies, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has filed a lawsuit in federal court with the potential to add new layers of complexity to managing a necessary resource currently in short supply.

The lawsuit, filed on May 14, 2013 against the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency, addresses two primary concerns: halting the decline in groundwater levels, and stemming pollution in the groundwater beneath the tribe’s 31,000-acre reservation.

The Agua Caliente suit reflects the growing interest of Indian tribes across the American West to pursue clear legal recognition of water rights held in trust by the U.S. government. Tribal legal rights to water, which occurred first as a push for surface water rights in the 1980s, has expanded to seeking more authority over the use of groundwater. The result of these actions is shaping a new era of water management in the West — one that will force the cities, counties, and irrigation districts now managing water to make room for another seat at the table.

This federal lawsuit and California’s 2014 law to fortify supplies and improve distribution of groundwater are both prompted by rapidly diminishing aquifers and inadequate authority to curtail indiscriminate use. The Agua Caliente case could be a model for tribes in California that seek greater influence in water management decisions. And the tribe’s suit could set a precedent for how groundwater rights for Indian tribes are interpreted nationally.

Some believe this case, now in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, will reach the U.S. Supreme Court. “The lawsuit is very significant,” Anecita Agustinez, tribal policy advisor for the California Department of Water Resources, told Circle of Blue, explaining that the case could prompt other tribes in California to file claims to groundwater. “I believe you can’t have groundwater management unless you have tribal participation. They live on significant rivers and watersheds.”

California is an important legal testing ground. The state is home to more than 100 federally recognized Indian tribes, from the Karuk reservation near Oregon to the Campo reservation on the Mexican border. The Agua Caliente is perhaps the first in the state to seek official recognition and quantification of its legal rights to groundwater. The tribe, by suing for its rights, wants a greater say in how water is managed.

Read the full story on CircleOfBlue.com.