Two water agencies petition U.S. Supremes to rule on tribal groundwater rights

Coachella Valley photo credit the Water Education Foundation.

From The Palm Springs Desert Sun (Ian James and Jay Calderon):

The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on whether Indian tribes hold special rights to the groundwater beneath their reservations, and the court will now have a chance to settle the question in a case that could redraw the lines in water disputes across the country.

The case revolves around whether the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has a federally established “reserved right” to groundwater on its reservation in Palm Springs and surrounding areas in the desert.

Two water districts have been fighting the tribe in court for four years, and on Wednesday the districts filed petitions to appeal to the Supreme Court. The Desert Water Agency and the Coachella Valley Water District are challenging a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the tribe has a right to groundwater that was established when the federal government created the reservation in the 1870s.

Managers of the water agencies argue the aquifer is a public resource and the tribe has the same rights under California law as all other landowners to use water pumped from the aquifer.

“This case is important because it’s about the shared resource,” said James Cioffi, president of DWA’s board of directors. “We think it’s our duty to maintain the ownership of the water for everyone.”

Cioffi pointed out that the agency has long provided water to the Agua Caliente tribe for its hotels, casinos and golf courses. He said the motivations behind the tribe’s lawsuit remain unclear.

“Certainly it’s not about access to the water because they along with everyone else in this community has access to all the water they want,” Cioffi said. “We have been partners with the tribe on a lot of their projects and will continue to do so.”

He and other board members at the water agencies say they worry that if the tribe prevails, its privileged rights could drive up water costs for customers and complicate efforts to manage groundwater.

The Coachella Valley Water District’s legal team said in their 47-page petition to the Supreme Court that water scarcity is one of the most pressing problems facing the western U.S. and that if the appeals court’s ruling is allowed to stand, Indian reservations “would have preemptive federal rights that override the vigorous and ongoing state and local efforts to ensure the future availability of groundwater in the West.”

The Supreme Court hears a small number of the cases that are petitioned for review, and the court is expected to announce in the fall whether it will take up the Agua Caliente case.

Groundwater movement via the USGS

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