A legal battle between a Californian tribe and the state’s water agencies could be a turning point in the history of United States water rights, potentially affecting how water is controlled across the entire country. In November of last year, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case that the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, concerned about the effects of climate change and the quality of the water in the aquifer, brought against the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency. This Supreme Court decision left standing a Ninth Circuit ruling, which established—for the first time—the principle that tribes have priority over their reservations’ groundwater.
And so this case has ramifications for tribes across the U.S. Many observers were quick to point out that the decision created a framework to resolve disputed claims over groundwater sources, which had previously split states and lower courts as they attempted to adjudicate claims on a case-by-case basis.
Since the decision comes from the Ninth Circuit Court, tribes now have automatic priority over groundwater resources in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. But the ramifications could spread further than that, as tribes in other states use the victory as the basis for their own legal challenges.
In August, water experts at Stanford University published research in the journal Science that attempted to quantify the effects that the decision would have on the west’s water resources. Before the ruling, just 4 percent of all tribal fresh water rights in 17 western states were exclusively for groundwater. By reviewing legal settlements and court decree documents, the Stanford researchers concluded that up to 236 tribes in the Western U.S. have unresolved groundwater claims.
While Coachella Valley is home to the Agua Caliente Indians, it is also home to Palm Springs, a resort town that boasts more than 100 golf courses. Keeping these places green in the desert is a challenge at the best of times. If the court finds that the local Native Americans are entitled to control a significant portion of the groundwater, it could give the tribe major leverage over the management of such spaces.
“I think this is the right decision,” says Michael Campana, a professor and expert in hydrology at Oregon State University. “Native Americans have not always benefited from the law, and [often] got the short end of the stick, and I think they’re getting something that they’ve always been entitled to.”
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