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Collaboration, negotiation achieve historic water rights settlement

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An historic flood and human error created the problem and decades of uncertainty compounded it. But consultation, cooperation and collaboration developed a partnership that worked out the solution.

That is how the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla court, authorized by Congress, was signed at a March 28 ceremony at the tribe's community center in Thermal, Calif.

The Torres Martinez Indians received $14.2 million, enabling them to buy replacement land and fund economic development projects to benefit the tribe's 500 enrolled members. The farmers, Imperial Irrigation District and Coachella Valley Irrigation District received permanent easements from the United States that will allow runoff from irrigated land to continue to drain into the Salton Sea.

The settlement allowed the U.S. Government to meet its obligations to the parties, ending a century of uncertainty for the Torres Martinez people. The agreement clears the way for collaborative solutions to Southern California water and land management issues, beginning a new era of cooperation.

The roots of the dispute date to 1905, when the Colorado River experienced exceptionally high levels of flooding and inundated the Cahuilla Basin, a dry lakebed, forming what is now the Salton Sea. Other factors, including human error, contributed to the problem. Initially, officials believed the floodwaters would evaporate in a few decades, allowing the tribe to resume farming in the reclaimed basin. But as the region's irrigation system improved and expanded, local farming operations blossomed, increasing the agricultural runoff from irrigated land that collected in the Salton Sea.

Presidential orders in the 1920s created a permanent flooding basin on Indian trust lands. In response to local and state requests for irrigation projects, the federal government constructed the All-American Canal in the 1930s and the Coachella Canal in the 1940s. Drainage from irrigated lands made the Salton Sea a permanent body of water in the area. Almost half of the tribe's reservation ? more than 11,000 acres ? was inundated by the flooding and drainage.

Litigation began in 1982 when the U.S. Government filed suit on its own behalf and that of the Indians against the water districts. The action sought damages for trespass and an end to drainage from irrigated land into the Salton Sea.

In 1992, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the federal lawsuit, awarding minimal damages from the water districts. But the court declined to bar drainage into the Salton Sea from irrigated lands, saying that was "inequitable and impractical."

The court found that a chief obstacle to analyzing the lawsuit was that the United States had legal obligations to both the Indians and the farmers, so its role was unclear. It also criticized the federal government for not bringing suit earlier. All the litigants were dissatisfied and filed appeals.

Yet the parties had already begun an alternative approach. Concerned that the complexities of the case and limited remedies available under the law would prevent the courts from reaching an equitable judgement, the litigants entered negotiations that began under Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan in 1989. The mediation program was part of the 9th Circuit's Alternative Dispute Resolution Division.

The parties worked out the settlement over the next several years, signing the pact in 1996. Congress authorized the agreement in the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians Claims Settlement Act in 2000.

The U.S. Government's contribution to the settlement included $6 million from Interior and $4.2 million from the Department of Justice. The Imperial Irrigation District contributed $3.7 million; and the Coachella Valley Irrigation District, $338,000. All funds were deposited in the tribe's settlement account.

Interior is authorized to place into trust status up to 11,800 acres of land that the tribe may purchase. These lands are subject to restrictions on water rights and limitations on gaming.

The parties involved created a foundation for strong partnerships, representing a vision for the department that I call the Four C's ? Communication, Consultation and Cooperation, all in the service of Conservation. This settlement exemplifies the cooperative spirit that is essential as we work to resolve land and water issues throughout the West.