From The Palm Springs Desert Sun (Ian James):
The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it will not hear an appeal by water agencies in the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ landmark lawsuit asserting rights to groundwater beneath the tribe’s reservation.
The Desert Water Agency and the Coachella Valley Water Disitrict appealed to the Supreme Court in July, challenging a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the tribe has a right to groundwater dating back to the federal government’s creation of the reservation in the 1870s.
The high court’s denial of the agencies’ petition means that the tribe has prevailed in winning legal backing for its claim to groundwater rights, and the next phase of the case in federal court focuses on whether the tribe owns storage space within the desert aquifer in Palm Springs and surrounding areas.
The case is likely to have far-reaching effects for Indian water rights throughout the West and across the country. By ruling that the tribe holds special federally reserved rights to groundwater, the court decisions so far in the case are expected to strengthen other tribes’ positions in negotiations or lawsuits over water disputes.
The case is being closely watched by tribes and water suppliers across the West.
In August, 10 states from Nevada to Texas weighed in to support the California water agencies. They said in a “friend-of-the-court” brief that every state “has an obvious stake in the preservation, maintenance and allocation of their most precious natural resource.”
If the Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case, it would have had a rare opportunity to settle the question of whether tribes hold special federal “reserved rights” to groundwater as well as surface water, and to define more clearly the boundaries between state-administered water rights and federal water rights. Now that the Supreme Court has let the lower court’s ruling stand, it will be up to lower courts – at least for now – to decide on lingering ambiguities in the established law.