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In a case that may affect tribal rights nationally, a federal appeals court ruled that an Indian tribe has rights to groundwater in California's Coachella Valley.
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said that federal laws granted the native tribe rights to the underground water more than 100 years ago, even though the tribe had not exercised the rights until recently. The decision, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, is the first to recognize the reserved water right.
"[W]e 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 unanimous panel said.
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has lived in the Coachella Valley since before California became a state in 1850. The reservation was formally established by subsequent presidential orders, and consists of about 31,400 acres in a checkerboard pattern among cities in Riverside County, including Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage.
The Coachella Valley is an arid desert, with rainfall averaging three to six inches per year. Almost all of the water used in the region comes from the aquifer under the valley -- the Coachella Valley Groundwater Basin. Like everyone else in the area, the Agua Caliente tribe purchased water from the Coachella Valley Water District.
With diminishing water resources, however, the Agua Caliente tribe filed in federal district court for injunctive and declaratory relief. The tribe said it had a reserved right under the Winters doctrine to water under the reservation. The trial court agreed.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court in establishing the tribe's reserved right under Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564, 575-78 (1908).
"In what has become known as the Winters doctrine, federal reserved water rights are directly applicable 'to Indian reservations and other federal enclaves, encompassing water rights in navigable and non-navigable streams,'" Judge Richard C. Tallman wrote for the court.
The judges said the law did not distinguish between surface water and groundwater, and concluded that the tribe's right included the groundwater in the Coachella Valley.
"It's a powerful decision," said Sarah Krakoff, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School. "It will be studied by all of the many tribes that still have unresolved water rights issues, and I suspect it will be put to use."
She said it could open the door to more litigation by tribes, and will change the contours of negotiations over water rights.