By Keli James, PR communications coordinatorgroundwater

An Indian tribe’s lawsuit in federal court could potentially add more complexity to managing California’s dwindling water supply.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians filed suit in May 2013, against the Coachella Valley Water district and the Desert Water Agency. The suit addresses two primary concerns: declining groundwater levels and pollution

According to the Circle of Blue, the Agua Caliente lawsuit covers— legal ownership of the space between soil particles that could be used for storing water underground. The suit also seeks to address claims about water quantity and quality that could rebalance current management practices in the region and state.

First, what’s the tribe’s federal reserved right to groundwater from two basins beneath the Coachella Valley. Second, if the valley’s two water agencies — Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency are polluting the aquifer with imported Colorado River water, which is saltier than the local sources.

Now in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, some feel the case will eventually 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 potentially prompt other tribes in California to file claims for groundwater. “I believe you can’t have groundwater management unless you have tribal participation. They live on significant rivers and watersheds.”

The next phase of the lawsuit will consider how much groundwater the Agua Caliente owns; do they have a right to water of a certain quality; and what should be the standard. Only phase one has been determined – the tribe does indeed have a right to groundwater.

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