Agency appeals ruling in Agua Caliente water rights case

A fight between an Indian tribe and a local water district could have massive implications for the future of water rights in California and across the country.

A spokeswoman for the Desert Water Agency says the district has filed a petition with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals “to protect its customers and local economy. The agency is seeking review of a recent federal court ruling that found the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has a reserved right to the region’s groundwater – the water that is used to supply drinking water to all Coachella Valley residents.

“This ruling could hand over virtually exclusive use of the public’s water supply to the Tribe, which is attempting to take ownership of the water and prevent the water agencies in the valley from delivering water to their customers,” the filing states.

Last month, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. government implied reserved groundwater, as well as surface water, for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians when it created the tribe’s southern California reservation. The court cited the 1908 Winters Doctrine, a judicial guarantee that provides water for the needs of Native Americans who reside on federally reserved lands.

How much groundwater the United States reserved for the Agua Caliente band will be addressed later in the case, possibly through a trial. Yet the legal issue of whether the tribe has a federally reserved right to groundwater has been resolved in its favor.

The tribe’s legal journey began in May 2013, when it filed for declaratory and injunctive relief against the Coachella Valley Water District, the valley’s largest water agency, and the Desert Water Agency, the water utility for the Palm Springs area. In June 2014, the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California granted the United States’ motion to intervene as plaintiff in its capacity as trustee for the tribe’s 32,000-acre reservation, which spreads across Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, and into the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains.