U.S. District Court Judge Issues Summary Judgement in Agua Caliente Groundwater Suit

On February 23rd, Federal District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal issued a summary judgement in Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water Dist. et al., striking another blow to two water districts in southeastern California.

At issue in the petition for summary judgement was Coachella Valley Water District (“CVWD”) and Desert Water Agency’s (“DWA”) equitable defenses against the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ (“tribe”) request for declaration of federally reserved water rights. Essentially the water agencies argued that the tribe had not previously established federally reserved rights, and their claim came an unreasonably long time after the districts had invested in and built water infrastructure.

In making their argument, the districts relied on three legal doctrines—laches, balance of equities, and unclean hands.

Laches prevents a plaintiff from seeking relief due to an undue delay in seeking relief and speaks directly to the district’s point on the timing of the tribe’s lawsuit.

In the summary judgement, Judge Bernal stated, “it is well-established that laches may not be asserted against the United States, including in suits where the Government is acting as trustee for an Indian tribe.”

In the balance of equities argument, attorneys for the districts draw on a previous case which included a statement that realized where a water supply source is fully appropriated, a federal reserved right may reduce local water rights, and Congress needs to consider that when determining if water is available in a federal reservation of public land.

Judge Bernal cited legal precedent holding that “balancing of equities is not a test” and found that standard is not applicable in this case.

Under the unclean hands doctrine, a plaintiff is prevented from pursuing a claim because the plaintiff has acted unfairly or fraudulently regarding the issue. In this case, the CVWD and DWA claim that the tribe has benefited from the districts’ importation of Colorado River water because the United States has purchased water from the districts and that the federal government failed to protect the tribe’s senior water rights.

The judge ruled that whether the United States failed to protect the tribe’s water rights or whether the tribe benefited from the importation of Colorado River water is immaterial. The United States is acting in its sovereign capacity, holding the reservation in trust.

The overall case, which has been divided into three phases, addresses the extent of the tribe’s federal reserved water rights and claims of water quality impairment. Judge Bernal ruled on Phase I in March 2015 and stayed remaining actions, except for the equitable defenses claim, pending the results of an appeal on his Phase I ruling. (For additional background, see “U.S. District Court Issues Order in Phase I of Agua Caliente Case,” JOW May 2015).


Written by Marta L. Weismann