A federal court has ruled that the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians have a right federal rights to groundwater in the Coachella Valley.
California – On Tuesday a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s ruling which found that the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla tribe had a stronger claim to groundwater in the Coachella Valley than local water authorities. The dispute began in 2013 after the Agua Caliente filed a lawsuit seeking groundwater rights to the Coachella Valley. The claim was opposed by the Desert Water Agency and Coachella Valley Water District, a move the DWA says was part of an effort to protect the public’s access and right to water.
The court ruled in favor of the Agua Caliente and DWA and CVWD filed an appeal of the decision. The lower court’s ruling has now been confirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals ruling.
“In affirming, we recognize that there is no controlling federal appellate authority addressing whether the reserved rights doctrine applies to groundwater,” Ninth Circuit Judge Richard Tallman wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. “However, because we conclude that it does, we hold that the Tribe has a reserved right to groundwater underlying its reservation as a result of the purpose for which the reservation was established.”
The Agua Caliente have maintained a reservation in the Coachella Valley since 1876 after executive orders from Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes. The main source of water in the valley is the Coachella Valley Groundwater Basin. The Agua Caliente have been purchasing from the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency rather than pumping their own water.
“However, the basin is routinely overdrafted, so the tribe sued for declaratory and injunctive relief in May 2013. The federal government intervened in 2014 and asserted that, indeed, the tribe’s rights to the groundwater have been reserved,” Courthouse News reported.
The federal judges ruled that executive orders establishing the reservation make it clear that the reservation was expected to have enough resources for the community to survive. Judge Tallman wrote that the executive orders were “imprecise” but not “indecipherable.” The climate and conditions of the valley make water rights a necessity if the area was intended to be a permanent home, the judge wrote.
The Agua Caliente also accused the water authorities of overdrafting the water to the point that “the natural replenishment cycle has not been able to return enough water to match historic water levels.” In response to these low water levels water districts began importing low-quality water from the Colorado River. “Instead of pre-treating this water, the water districts put the water, as is, into the aquifer, which has significantly degraded the quality of the natural groundwater,” the tribe writes. Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe said the tribe pointed out the unsustainable practices and were ignored by the water districts for years.
Despite the lack of a federal law that states the rights of a reservation extend to the groundwater, the court decided to extend the right because of how important groundwater is in this part of the country. What will this precedent mean for other fights for water rights? Corporations like Nestle are increasingly seeking to own large bodies of water and even stealing water right from under someone else’s land. Will the courts be any help in fighting for water rights in the coming water wars?