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21 May 2019

Water Wars: Power Struggles Over the Coachella Valley's Water Supply Have Dominated Recent Headlines. What's Really Going On?

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The Whitewater River flows near Interstate 10. The Whitewater River flows near Interstate 10. Kevin Fitzgerald

Local news reports as of late have included alarming updates on a spate of disputes that have cropped up involving local water agencies.

For example, there’s the outrage expressed by the Desert Hot Springs-area’s Mission Springs Water District over what it refers to as the west valley-area Desert Water Agency’s “seizure” of groundwater management.

Or perhaps you saw a headline regarding the Imperial Irrigation District’s concern over the recent legislative action taken by local Assemblymember Chad Mayes (right). His Assembly Bill 854 proposed forcing the IID to expand its board of directors from five to 11 members, with the six new members all coming from Riverside County, whose IID electricity customers pay 60 percent of IID’s power-related revenues. Currently, only Imperial County constituents elect the IID board members, which leaves Riverside County customers with no voice in their power company’s operations.

Then there’s the biggest local water dispute—which began in 2013 with the filing of a lawsuit against the east valley’s Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The suit claims the tribe possesses “senior water rights” to all the groundwater in the aquifer under the entire Coachella Valley. The tribe has been seeking control over all decisions, policies and groundwater-management strategies that either agency might implement.

Why is this all happening, and why is it happening now? What is causing this hyper-sensitivity among water stakeholders? What does it all mean for residents?


John Soulliere is the Mission Springs Water District’s conservation and public-affairs officer. During a recent phone interview, I asked what led to the recent lawsuit and public attacks against the Desert Water Agency.

“What we’re talking about here is removing the ability from the five elected board members of the Mission Springs Water District to determine how we will develop our local water supply to meet demand and meet (the requirements) of economic development and growth,” he said. “That right was taken away through a unilateral action of the DWA board, and through a somewhat stealth action by the state, to include (the DWA) in a new state law as an exclusive Groundwater Sustainability Agency without notification to the city of Desert Hot Springs or our water agency.”

The “stealth action” Soulliere refers to was taken by the DWA board back in 2015. So why the aggressive posture now—four years after the fact?

“Prior to taking the action they did in 2015, we had a court settlement with DWA and CVWD, who does pump and serve up in our area (as well). That court settlement put the three of us at the table to jointly manage. We spent $1.3 million developing a management plan. Within that plan, MSWD retained its rights to manage its local water supply and to develop the water as it saw fit—within state law, of course. DWA was, and continues to be, the state water contractor. They are here for the purpose of replenishment. We were functioning under that agreement just fine, (but the DWA’s) 2015 action basically threw that settlement off to the side. The management plan that came out of that settlement may still be in play, but the difference now is that we (MSWD) are removed from the governance and the authority. So it was a very divisive and hostile act that they’ve taken to move us out of the equation so that they can make autonomous decisions related to water in our basin.”

Kephyan Sheppard is the pastor at the Word of Life Fellowship Center in Desert Hot Springs, and the chair of the Mission Springs Water District’s Water Rights Study Group, which just issued its final report. I asked him why this issue had taken on such a sense of urgency now, when the action in question took place in 2015.

“Being a pastor in this community, I’ve been hands-on with the residents for seven years, and for the most part, it appeared that many didn’t even know that there was a dispute going on,” Sheppard said. “Recently, in like the last year and a half, people are starting to find out, and there’s a sense of pride and entitlement saying, ‘Keep your hands off our water.’ There’s a growing understanding of what’s at stake.”

I asked him if he could point to any examples of the DWA not fulfilling its responsibilities, or the DWA doing anything harmful to the interests of DHS residents.

“No, not necessarily,” Sheppard said. “The study group was formed because of the unprecedented action taken (by the DWA) without discussion with MSWD, and so for (DHS residents), that was the main thing. I know (Desert Hot Springs) is projected to have an economic and growth boom over the next decade, and I know that water is integral to everything that’s getting ready to take place. So, we need to make sure that we control our water.”

“Our” water? Doesn’t the water the DWA is managing as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency belong to all Coachella Valley residents?

Obviously, the Desert Water Agency views the dispute differently. Ashley Metzger is the outreach and conservation manager of the DWA.

“The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is a law passed (by the California State Legislature) in 2015,” Metzger said. “We are one of approximately 20 or so agencies statewide that are actually designated by law as exclusive groundwater-management agencies. If you look at the language when we were established in 1961, it was for the purpose of (providing) groundwater replenishment and management. That is part of the reason why we have this exclusive designation. We have the unique ability within our boundaries to provide for both supply and demand management. The MSWD is missing a key part of the equation (replenishment capabilities) if we are not involved. If we are involved, as we have been for decades, then you have both sides of the equation.”

I asked Metzger about Mission Springs’ claim that the Desert Hot Springs agency has been effectively removed from any role in planning for future water-development needs.

“We are and have been a part of the Desert Hot Springs community,” Metzger said. “We have facilities there, and we have the authority to manage the groundwater there by statute. There’s a water-management agreement that’s been in place since 2004. As part of (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act), you have to submit a plan to the state, and the foundation for that plan was the agreement that MSWD, CVWD and DWA had all signed onto.

“We’re not proposing anything radical. We’re not trying to take any water away. Groups come to our board meetings saying things like, ‘You’re trying to take our hot springs water and provide it in Palm Springs,’ and that’s certainly not true. We’ve been fighting a bit of confusion and misinformation, which has been a challenge. I think our biggest message to people is that we’re planning for the future. That’s a key part of our organizational role. … You know that Palm Springs and Cathedral City are largely built out. So when we talk about planning for growth, we’re thinking about the northern area of our boundary, where there is the most room for growth, which is the DHS area. We’re putting dollars out and committing to spending more money in the future to make all that possible.

“We’ve been communicating with stakeholders in the community and letting them know. I think we may have done ourselves a little bit of a disservice in the past by letting MSWD take the lead on being the face of water in the community out there. So we’re changing our approach, and we’re more active and engaged in the community.”


“Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.” This quote—attributed to Mark Twain, although there’s no evidence he actually said it—seems to apply to the Coachella Valley of today. How else might one explain the recent controversy over District 42 Assemblymember Chad Mayes and his AB 854?

Neighboring District 56 Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (right) recently stepped into the fray, tabling the bill in the Assembly Appropriations Committee (on which he sits), in a successful effort to get the Imperial Irrigation District and the east valley’s Coachella Valley Water District into discussions about “extending the (1934) electricity-service agreement in the Coachella Valley service area.”

The controversial bill was sponsored by Mayes, a Republican, to rectify what some perceive to be an injustice: Some Coachella Valley residents receive their electricity service through the IID, but they are not allowed to vote for any IID board members.

The IID provides no water to Coachella Valley residents, just electricity. This is one reason why Mayes’ call to increase the IID board size from five members to eleven, with the six new members all being from Riverside County (in other words, the Coachella Valley), drew public cries of outrage from multiple directions—including threats that the IID could pull out of the Coachella Valley.

Emmanuel Martinez is the IID’s government affairs specialist.

“The position of the Imperial Irrigation District is that this legislation completely ignores a longstanding relationship and agreement between the CVWD and the IID,” Martinez said during a recent phone interview. “The long and the short of it is that through this contractual relationship, which is the 1934 compromise agreement expiring in 2033, the Coachella Valley was allowed to get water via the IID, and in return, the CVWD leased their power rights to the IID. So, this new legislation proposes to add six new directors to the IID board and is a complete takeover, in our opinion.”

I asked Martinez if it was unfair that Coachella Valley residents had no right to vote on the makeup of the board of the IID, to which they pay their electric bills.

“IID and CVWD are similar agencies in that they are both water districts with competing interests for the same source of water, which is the Colorado River water,” Martinez said. “By virtue of that, this legislation would give double representation to the people of the CVWD, who would vote for CVWD board members and have control of that board, and also vote for IID board members.”

The Independent asked Mayes what prompted him to sponsor AB 854; he responded via email.

“IID has the ability to change utility rates, determine investment in communities, or cut service altogether,” Mayes wrote. “This power over 92,000 disenfranchised voters must be balanced with representation. An individual’s right to a voice in any government exerting powers over them is one of the founding principles of this nation. AB 854 was introduced to honor this fundamental right and extends it to all IID ratepayers.”

We asked Mayes what his next steps would be, now that the bill has been tabled, at least temporarily.

“In order for this bill to pass the Legislature, we must ensure water rights are protected; representation is extended to those currently disenfranchised within IID’s service territory; and there is a strong and dependable public electrical utility in perpetuity in the IID service area,” Mayes wrote. “I’m committed to finding a common ground that both sides can agree on and amending this legislation to reflect that. From day one, I’ve said that IID’s water rights are sacrosanct. I did so publicly, and I did directly to IID. The final version of this bill will not infringe on those rights.”

Assemblymember Garcia, a Democrat, took credit for quelling the tensions raised by AB 854. “Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia Engages to Bring Parties Together for Talks on Future of IID’s Electricity Service in Coachella Valley” was the headline on the press release issued by his office on May 16.

It went on to say: “After speaking with both Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District, they have both agreed to begin meetings to examine the 1934 agreement and the possibility of extending the electricity service agreement in the Coachella Valley service area. The willingness of parties to come to the table demonstrates good faith efforts on all sides to resolve this matter locally without the need for legislation.”


Last, but certainly not least, is the recent development in the battle between the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the valley’s water agencies.

The tribe’s suit, seeking power over the groundwater underneath the valley, hit a significant wall in April, when U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal dismissed portions of it because the tribe could not prove it had been significantly harmed.

The Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency claimed victory in an April 22 statement.

“The Agua Caliente Tribe was not harmed, because it has always had access to as much high-quality water as it needs,” the statement said. “The judge ruled that the tribe does not have standing, the right to pursue a lawsuit against the local public water agencies, Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency. The only claim remaining in the tribe’s lawsuit is the “narrow issue” of whether the tribe has an ownership interest in storage space for groundwater under its reservation, the court wrote.”

This ruling is as close to a total victory as the water agencies could have hoped to achieve.

“Our top priority is and always has been to protect our groundwater supplies to ensure a sustainable, reliable water future for everyone in the Coachella Valley,” said John Powell Jr., the Coachella Valley Water District’s board president. “We are part of this community, and we are committed to its environmental and economic success.

The statement went on to read: “The water agencies have spent decades ensuring a safe, reliable water supply to all users in the Coachella Valley, including the five tribes in the basin. Both agencies remain committed to long-term water sustainability.”

The Agua Caliente tribe has not said what its next steps will be.

Several days later, the Coachella Valley Water District boasted in an April 30 statement: “An annual analysis of groundwater levels shows significant increases over the past 10 years throughout most of the Coachella Valley.”

The statement discussed studies done on both the Indio and Mission Creek sub-basins, which account for much of the valley’s aquifer. The Indio Sub-basin is located under the vast majority of the Coachella Valley; over the past 10 years, there were increases in groundwater levels between two and 50 feet. There were localized portions of decreased water levels in the range of two to eight feet in the mid-valley area, which will soon benefit from the CVWD’s Palm Desert Replenishment Facility.

Meanwhile, the Mission Creek sub-basin, located under Desert Hot Springs and the unincorporated area of Indio Hills, showed increases in groundwater levels of up to 28.5 feet in most of the area.

So, there you have it: The Coachella Valley’s water supply is in good shape. But don’t expect fights and power struggles over it to end anytime soon.


Coachella Valley Water History Timeline

1918

Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) is created.

Feb. 14, 1934

Signing of the Agreement of Compromise between the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), the Coachella Valley Water District and the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) governing access to Colorado River water.

1953

Mission Springs Water District (MSWD) is created.

1961

Desert Water Agency (DWA) is created.

2004

An initial MSWD lawsuit against DWA and CVWD is settled requiring the Mission Springs Sub-basin to receive supplemental water from the other two agencies.

May 14, 2013

Lawsuit filed by Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians against CVWD and DWA seeking groundwater rights, superseding all other water users in the region.

2013

The Mission Creek/Garnet Hill Water Management Plan is adopted by the boards of CVWD, DWA and MSWD.

2014-2015

California State Legislature passes the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2015; it is amended in 2015.

Nov. 13, 2015

DWA holds board meeting and votes itself to be the groundwater management agency supervising MSWD.

2016

MSWD files suit against DWA opposing designation of DWA as the Groundwater Sustainability Agency over DWA and MSWD boundary areas.

Nov. 27, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court decides not to review the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision granting superior rights to groundwater to the Agua Caliente tribe.

Feb. 20, 2019

AB 854 introduced by Assemblymember Chad Mayes.

April 19, 2019

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal dismisses a significant portion of the Agua Caliente’s suit against DWA and CVWD, saying the tribe has not been substantially harmed by the agencies’ actions.

May 16, 2019

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia issues statement as a member of the Assembly Appropriations Committee placing a hold on AB 854 with the intention of holding negotiations between IID and CVWD.

1 comment

  • Comment Link William Waterman Wednesday, 22 May 2019 17:23 posted by William Waterman

    DWA: "I think we may have done ourselves a little bit of a disservice in the past by letting MSWD take the lead on being the face of water in the community out there."

    Let's see, MSWD existed about a decade before DWA, and was created by the Desert Hot Springs community for the DHS community. Why wouldn't it be, and continue to be the "face of water" in the community? A little condescending, eh DWA?.

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