Tribe Battles Desert Water Districts Over Groundwater
For the past three years a battle over groundwater rights has been brewing in the Coachella Valley, and it shows no signs of letting up.
In May 2013 the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians filed a lawsuit seeking to be named a senior water rights holder in the valley and to have that right quantified. It also makes the case that the Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency are harming the tribe and residents by mismanaging the area’s groundwater. The Agua Caliente contend that the water agencies are polluting the aquifer by recharging it with Colorado River water.
“The water, which contains higher total dissolved solids, nitrates, pesticides and other contaminants, is injected into the Coachella Valley aquifer at a facility close to the tribe’s lands,” says information from the Native American Rights Fund. The tribe wants rights to groundwater and a say in how it’s managed.
In a closely watched case last March, a judge ruled that the tribe does have a right to groundwater but other parts of the case are still up in the air and both water districts have filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit, which will hear the case in June.
The Desert Sun recently interviewed Agua Caliente chairman Jeff Grubbe, who said that his tribe was not in a hurry to settle the case, telling the Desert Sun, “This is a top priority for my membership and we’re going to see it through no matter how long it takes.”
The water agencies contend that Colorado River water is perfectly safe and recharging the aquifer is the prudent thing to do.
Research by the Desert Sun has shown that even with Colorado River water added to the aquifer, it is still in decline, pointing to another problem with groundwater issues in the region.
State Water Project Deliveries Upped to 15 Percent
Good news for farmers these days is relative at best but some of that came yesterday as California’s Department of Water Resources bumped up the estimate for water delivery through its State Water Project (SWP) from 10 percent of requests to 15 percent.
The SWP contractors, which serve about 25 million people and nearly a million acres of irrigated agriculture, requested 4,172,786 acre-feet of water for 2016, but as of now will get 631,115 acre-feet.
“Our modest increase underscores the fact that we still have a critical water shortage after four-plus years of drought that we don’t know when will end,” said DWR director Mark Cowin. “One look at our low reservoirs tells us that we need a lot more wet weather before summer.”
There is still a chance that more wet weather could mean that number may climb even higher – which is a strong possibility since the long-term forecast for California looks set for three more months with at least a 33 percent chance of above-average precipitation. However, even the increase to 15 percent is still short of 2015’s allocation of 20 percent. The last year when 100 percent of requests for deliveries were met was 2006.
As of right now, the water equivalent of the state’s ever-critical snowpack is 18.7 inches (47cm), which is 115 percent of the historical average. That number will need to climb to 150 percent by April for water managers to begin to consider the drought mitigated. There’s still a long way to go, but the most recent numbers are a vast improvement over last year, when the snowpack at the beginning of February was 23 percent of the average, slipping all the way down to 5 percent by April 1.
DWR has cautioned that most reservoir levels are still low, although many have made significant gains in the past few weeks.
California Legislators Push for Increased Water Flows from Delta
State Senator Andy Vidak, along with a coalition of other state legislators, sent a letter to the regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation and the chair of the State Water Resources Control Board expressing the desire for more water to be allowed to flow through delta pumps during the wet winter.
The letter references a recent determination by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to curtail water exports from the delta. Indeed, on January 14, the agency ruled that delta smelt, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, are particularly vulnerable now during their migration, and that increased flows to the delta would be detrimental.
Vidak’s letter states that, “This decision will only leave us in a position where we must watch millions of gallons of additional storm water rush out to the ocean every minute since we are not able to capture any portion of it under this order.”
Vidak asks for increased pumping to be allowed during high inflow to maximize water capture after storms. “While such flexibility will not solve the drought, any additional water will help to stretch the amount of water that we have available in our reservoirs for the times of the year when those resources are truly needed,” the letter states.
Top image: A golfer plays across an artificial lake in Palm Desert, Calif., May 29, 2003. California’s battle over Colorado River water has finally forced a reality check in the Coachella Valley, which receives just 3 inches (7.5cm) of water a year. (Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press)