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Groundwater Rights in the Arid California Desert – Is this Relevant to You?

Jessica Sarnowski

This post explains why a local water rights dispute in California may be relevant to EHS directors.  

When one thinks of the Coachella Valley, the first things that come to mind are often pop culture references – the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival where the stars come to frolic in the dusty desert, PGA West Golf Courses set against beautiful mountain backdrops, date ice cream shakes at Shields Date Garden, and for me, miles of running trails.

Other than the Salton Sea, the topic of water doesn’t permeate the thoughts of visitors to this area- and with good reason- there is hardly any natural visible water in the Coachella Valley. However, as a recent news article, A Legal Battle in The Coachella Valley Could Transform How California—And the Nation—Uses Water, by the Pacific Standard explains, the focus is on water below the surface.

The Pacific Standard article summarizes a legal action brought by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians against the local water district and water agency. The case concerns the legal right to the groundwater in the Coachella Valley Aquifer serving the Agua Caliente Reservation.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the Tribe’s rights to groundwater within its jurisdiction and, since the Supreme Court denied cert. (will not hear the case), the next phases of the litigation, which deal with groundwater quantity and quality, will proceed.

At first glance, one might think that this is a local issue, a fight between a California tribe and state interest in groundwater allocation, however, as the news article points out, legal precedent under the Ninth Circuit means that more than just the state of California is affected.  

Extrapolating out more broadly, water scarcity is a major problem for arid climates around the world (see, and as climate change increases in intensity, it is likely that water rights litigation will become more than just a western issue.

So, what does this have to do with you, the EHS director with facilities located in arid climates?

1. Know how water affects your business processes - are you a beer company that relies on high quantities of clean water for your product? If so, understand where that water comes from and what the status is of the quantity of water available and its quality.

2. Keep abreast of water rights disputes in your area – you may think that your water supply is endless, but it isn’t, and you need to be aware of claims to water rights in your location and how litigation over water rights can affect your supply.

3. Protect your business by being responsible with your water use and reuse – understand how your company uses water and reuses water. Keep up to date on the best practices for sustainable water practices at businesses like yours.

One final note – as with the air that we breathe, water flows beyond state boundaries. Water scarcity may seem like a local problem, but it really isn’t. If water originates in one location, flowing in an aquifer, and that origination point dries up, then that affects more than one location. It is beneficial to be aware of where you get your water from, how it filters to you, and who has the legal rights to use it.

For more information on the Coachella Valley Case (note these are two very different perspectives):

Helpful website on Groundwater:



Author Bio:

As Intelex’s Global Compliance Content Lead, EHSQ Content Strategy, Jessica drives overall content strategy, with a particular focus on overseeing the delivery of high-quality compliance content within the EHSQ Alliance.

Responsible for identifying and cultivating valuable compliance content for EHSQ professionals, Jessica fosters engagement in the EHSQ Alliance by working with experts in the field. 

Jessica has over 10 years of public and private sector experience in environmental policy and law. Jessica received her Juris Doctor from Vermont Law School and Master of Laws degree in Environmental Law from The George Washington University Law School. You can follow Jessica on LinkedIn by clicking HERE.



This material provided by the Intelex Community and EHSQ Alliance is for informational purposes only. The material may include notification of regulatory activity, regulatory explanation and interpretation, policies and procedures, and best practices and guidelines that are intended to educate and inform you with regard to EHSQ topics of general interest. Opinions are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Intelex. The material is intended solely as guidance and you are responsible for any determination of whether the material meets your needs. Furthermore, you are responsible for complying with all relevant and applicable regulations. We are not responsible for any damage or loss, direct or indirect, arising out of or resulting from your selection or use of the materials.


November 29, 2018 @ 12:58 PM EST Environment

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