Deep beneath the desert east of Los Angeles is a Southern California treasure: a massive basin filled with fresh water.
The aquifer has spurred development of the popular resort towns in the Coachella Valley, such as Palm Springs, Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage. But it also lies underneath the reservation of a small Native American tribe that owns golf courses and casinos in the area.
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians say the drinking water is partly theirs, and wants a stake in how it is used by public utilities. A yearslong legal battle over the issue could end up being taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. The high court’s action could affect groundwater rights across the arid West, where utilities now deliver the water to tribes as another customer, along with farmers, cities and businesses.
The 480-member tribe contends the local water agencies—the Desert Water Agency and Coachella Valley Water District—have mismanaged the groundwater by allowing too much to be pumped out and by replenishing the source with untreated water from the Colorado River that they consider subpar. The water agencies, however, say the tribe appears to be making a water grab, potentially setting a dangerous precedent where control of a municipal resource is partially ceded from a public utility.
They also say the tribe, which has built two casino resorts and two 18-hole championship-caliber golf courses on its 31,500 acres, has little experience in managing water, and could potentially sell some of it. “They’re in the money business,” said James Cioffi, board president of the Desert Water Agency. The tribe says its only interest is in preserving the quality of the water.
Agua Caliente in 2013 took its case to federal court, winning in the first round on the issue of whether it has federal reserved rights to groundwater. That ruling was upheld in March by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The water agencies appealed to the Supreme Court, which is expected to decide whether to hear the case this fall….If it lets the lower court rulings stand, more tribes could seek groundwater rights—triggering more litigation….Other tribes have already filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of Agua Caliente’s litigation, including the Spokane in Washington and Paiutes in Nevada.
Tribal rights over rivers and other surface water supplies are well established in the West, but less so when it comes to groundwater—one of the most important drinking water sources in many desert areas.
Excertp from In Palm Springs, a Fight Over Who Controls the Drinking Water, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 2, 2017