For over 20 years, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has sought ownership interest in groundwater in the Coachella Valley and its interest in responsible management of the aquifer’s condition. Presently, groundwater in the Coachella Valley aquifer is managed by local water districts, including Desert Water Agency and Coachella Valley Water District. On March 7, 2017, the 9th Circuit Court rejected efforts to limit the tribe’s rights to the valley’s groundwater. The ruling represents a strong rebuke to the Desert Water Agency and the Coachella Valley Water District, whose leaders argued that the tribe was only entitled to surface water on the reservation. This case is important because it will help clarify what rights, if any, Indian tribes enjoy in groundwater as a matter of federal law. Other federal reservations, like national parks or national forests, also enjoy a similar form of water rights, but the Supreme Court has never explicitly addressed the question of whether any of those rights apply to groundwater. The court pointed out that surface water is “minimal or entirely lacking for most of the year” in the region and “a reservation without an adequate source of surface water must be able to access groundwater.” The water districts have argued that the tribe could do anything they pleased with the water, including operating a bottled water plant, say. However, Barton Thompson, an expert on water law and a professor of natural resources at Stanford Law School states, “Indian tribes around the USA have frequently managed their water quite well. And if that is a concern, then the answer is for the federal government to ensure they have the resources to manage the groundwater effectively.” Although the case could set a national precedent on Indian water rights, the decision is only the first step in a long process. Future stages will quantify the tribe’s water rights and will determine whether the tribe is entitled to water of a certain quality.
Posted in Coachella Valley News.