Indian Water Rights Go Underground in Valley

water-rightsFor 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.

Deep Well

deep-wellIt all began in 1895, with some acreage purchased to grow apricots, near a native Cahuillla village. Severe droughts and no available water resulted in dead trees and lost investment for a number of owners, until Henry Pearson, who acquired the land in 1926, drilled a well and hit water at a relatively shallow 100 feet. Being surprised that so much water was available so near the surface, he continued to drill further until reaching 650 feet—becoming the deepest well in the valley. By 1928, the Pearsons wanted to be closer to the village and sold the ranch to Roger Doyle, who transformed the ranch house and apricot sheds into guest quarters—and the Deep Well Guest Ranch was born. In time, new owners and new buildings made the property a fine guest ranch. Frank and Melba Bennett of Beverly Hills were persuaded to operate the ranch in the winter of 1931, along with Philip Boyds (later Palm Springs first mayor). In 1932, the Boyds and Bennetts purchased the property together, and the latter operated the facility for the next 18 years—but by 1949, new subdivisions were starting to press upon the simple, rural, western ambience that was so dear to the Bennetts. So, Frank and Melba Bennett sold Deep Well Guest Ranch to Yoland Markson of Boston, and moved into the village on Valmonte Sur. In the late 1950s Deep Well Ranch was more valuable for its development potential than as a resort. Deep Well Guest Ranch would be rebranded as Deep Well Ranch Estates. In 1952 Bill Grant, builder of Thunderbird Golf Club, began development of the subdivision adjoining the guest ranch, and would “carry on the tradition” of having ranch-style houses and street names which would “tie in with the activities of ranch life.” Deep Well Guest Ranch is no longer. It was all razed when finally subdivided for homes. And what has become of Pearson’s deep well?
Posted in Coachella Valley News.

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