Tribe responds after agencies ask lawsuit over Valley's water rights be dropped

POSTED: 11:32 AM PDT Jun 04, 2013    UPDATED: 02:39 PM PDT Jun 04, 2013 
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -

Two Coachella Valley water agencies today asked the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians to drop its lawsuit against them so they can all work together "to chart a strong future for the region's water supply and economy,'' but the tribe's chairman called the request "absurd.''

The suit filed last month asks a federal court to declare the tribe's rights to valley groundwater and prevent the Desert Water Agency and Coachella Valley Water District from overdrawing and "degrading'' the local water supply.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Riverside, seeks a legal ruling on the tribe's "prior and paramount reserved right to sufficient water underlying the Coachella Valley.''

The two water agencies said in a joint statement that the suit would "take away the public's rights to use Coachella Valley groundwater and prevent the public agencies' delivery of water to their customers.'' It would also stop them from using the Colorado River water to recharge the Upper Coachella Valley Basin, and pumping groundwater, according to the statement.

"We call on the tribe to end this costly and unnecessary litigation so we can return to our ongoing discussions about how best to ensure the Coachella Valley will continue to have a safe, reliable and affordable water supply,' said Desert Water Agency board President Patricia Oygar. "Just the filing of this lawsuit is hurting the economy because it's creating great uncertainty about future water supplies.''

Agua Caliente Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe said the agencies' request to drop the suit "simply to have audience with them is not only absurd and in bad faith but demonstrates the arrogance of these agencies.''

"We have long been open to constructive engagement and waited over a year to bring our lawsuit in the hope the DWA and CVWD would come to the table,'' he said. "We continue to be open to discussions now. But let's not forget the record here. The water districts steadfastly rejected our overtures to engage in discussions to resolve these issues.''

Grubbe alleged the suit would shed light on the agencies' "long history of mismanaging the valley's water and their misplaced priorities when it comes to how they use the money they derive from ratepayers.''

Oygar and Coachella Valley Water District board President John Powell Jr. asked the tribe to work with the agencies through the Integrated Regional Water Management Plan, a group of agencies and organizations that manages water in the region.

"We are committed to working with the tribe, but it would be irresponsible for us to engage in discussions with a tribe whose pending lawsuit and public relations campaign use scare tactics and makes false accusations in an attempt to take away the public's water rights,'' Powell said.

"While the tribe is not answerable to the public, DWA and CVWD are nonprofit public agencies that must serve the public interest and must act to protect the public's water rights, including the rights of the tribe,'' he said.

According to the agencies' statement, both have worked with the tribe in the past on some of the issues raised in the lawsuit, which didn't specify how much water it wants or what it would do with that water.

"It has no pipes, pumps or other infrastructure to deliver the water to customers. It has no expertise in water management,'' according to the statement.

Oygar said if the agencies had to buy water from the tribe, they'd have to raise water rates to pay them. If the tribe didn't sell water to them, they couldn't access some, or all, of the existing water supplies, she said.

Since 1973, the agencies have used Colorado River water exchanged for State Water Project water to replenish groundwater in the Whitewater River sub- basin of the Upper Coachella Valley Groundwater. And since 2002, they have used river water exchanged for water project water to replenish groundwater in the Mission Creek sub-basin of the Upper Coachella Valley Groundwater Basin. Both agencies said their water meets federal and state quality requirements.

The suit seeks to stop the two water agencies from "injuring the Tribe and its members by overdrafting the Upper Whitewater and Garnet Hill sub-basins of the Coachella Valley Groundwater Basin aquifer and degrading the groundwater quality."

"Since at least the 1990s, the Agua Caliente and others have aggressively urged the CVWD and DWA to take action to end the mismanagement, overdrafting and polluting of the aquifer underlying the Coachella Valley,'' Agua Caliente Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe alleged last month. "The tribe has patiently attempted to work with CVWD and DWA to address these longstanding concerns, but to no avail.''

A previous statement from the Agua Caliente tribe alleged that the water agencies "have admitted to continually and imprudently overdrafting the groundwater resources, causing significant environmental damage and jeopardizing the water future of all the valley's residents.''

The districts import and do not substantially treat lower-quality water from the Colorado River and inject that water into the aquifer at a facility close to tribal land. That water contains dissolved solids, nitrates, pesticides and other contaminants, according to the tribe.

"Thus, the groundwater in the Western Coachella Valley, including the water below the Agua Caliente Reservation, which includes the cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and Thousand Palms, is being polluted at a faster rate than the aquifer down-valley,'' the tribe alleged.

The tribe maintains it has the right to surface water and groundwater "sufficient to accomplish the purposes of the reservation'' under federal law. It has been in the Coachella Valley ``since time immemorial,'' so its water rights supersede others claimed under state law, according to the tribe.