On summer weekends, the Truckee River is a favorite spot for vacationers, rafters, bike riders and patient anglers chasing the elusive trout plying its fresh, clear water.
Most are unaware that this 120-mile river in Northern California and Western Nevada has been ground zero in a long-running and costly fight over tribal water rights.
The U.S. government filed the first lawsuit seeking surface water rights for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indians in 1913. Since then, several generations of lawyers have waged legal battles over the Truckee River water rights, and the matter’s still not resolved. The latest resolution awaits congressional action.
This case and many others like it serve as a cautionary tale for the Coachella Valley since the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians sued the Desert Water Agency (DWA) and Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) over water rights and groundwater management in May.
Like other tribal water rights cases I’ve seen in my 35 years in water resources management and development, the Agua Caliente lawsuit promises to be extremely costly and contentious – and that’s not good for the public or the tribe. This litigation will create great uncertainty about future water supplies, potential increases in customer rates and the region’s recovering economy.
The history of the West is replete with legal disputes over tribal rights to surface water in lakes, streams and rivers, like the Truckee. The Agua Caliente’s lawsuit is even more problematic because it asserts a new claim to groundwater, for which there is no established legal precedent. The tribe is seeking to take away the public’s groundwater and storage rights in the Coachella basin and prevent the water agencies from delivering water to their customers.
This would be a troubling precedent for not only the Coachella Valley but for all water interests. That is one of the many reasons the Southern California Water Committee (SCWC), a nonprofit and nonpartisan partnership and one of the region’s most respected voices on water policy, is urging the tribe to drop the lawsuit.
SCWC is calling on the tribe to join stakeholders in the community in charting the future for the region’s water supply by working with the DWA and CVWD through the Integrated Regional Water Management Plan.
DWA and CVWD have a long history of working collaboratively with regional stakeholders on the careful management of the groundwater basin. They have consistently provided a safe, affordable and reliable supply of water to their customers – including the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
Despite this strong record of public service, the lawsuit questions DWA’s and CVWD’s usage of Colorado River water to recharge the basin and address the issue of overdrafts – even though some 33 million people rely on the Colorado River for drinking water and numerous California water districts use it to recharge their basins. DWA and CVWD water supplies meet all federal and state water quality requirements.
The tribe has not said what it would do differently to recharge the basin and address the issue of overdrafts. And it has no infrastructure or expertise to deliver the water to customers. That leaves us to conclude that the challenge to the usage of Colorado River water is a red herring meant to distract from the tribe’s overriding demand to a “senior,” or greater, right than the public’s right to the Coachella Valley’s groundwater.
The Association of California Water Agencies, the nation’s largest statewide coalition of public water agencies, said the lawsuit creates “dangerous uncertainty for the residents and businesses of the region and does not advance any public good.”
For the good of public – and the tribe – the Agua Caliente leadership needs to end this lawsuit and the uncertainty over water supplies that threaten the region’s economic recovery.
Entering into a dialogue with the DWA and CVWD to determine how to meet the Coachella Valley’s long term water needs will support the ratepayers of the region. And moving this discussion from the courtroom to a meeting room will shift the focus from a protracted and expensive legal battle to a cooperative, collaborative and much quicker process for assuring a safe, reliable and affordable water supply for all who live and work in the Coachella Valley.