Supreme Court lets Agua Caliente decision stand

Water flows through the Indian Canyons area south of Palm Springs

The Desert Water Agency and the Coachella Valley Water District came away dry Monday, as the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a request that it hear an appeal in the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ lawsuit claiming rights to the groundwater that runs beneath the tribe’s reservation lands in the Palm Springs area.

“The Coachella Valley’s water supply is now in uncharted territory,” the DWA said in a statement on its website.  “Western states have developed complex legal regimes and permitting systems to protect groundwater basins from ever-increasing demands on water resources.  The decision will drastically complicate, and in some locations could entirely defeat, these state and local efforts to manage groundwater resources efficiently. This is why ten states and multiple organizations weighed in to support the local water agencies’ petition to be heard by the Supreme Court.”

The water agencies had sought to appeal an appeals court decision that upheld an earlier ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal.

“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Judge Bernal’s decision that the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has a right to groundwater in the Coachella Valley — a right that the federal government set aside for the Tribe when it established the Agua Caliente Reservation in the late 1870s,” said Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians at the time of Judge Bernal’s June 2017 ruling.”

“We are disappointed in the decision because we believe the water in this valley is a shared resources that belongs to everyone,” said CVWD Board president John Powell, Jr. “The Tribe has always had access to as much water as they requested, but now they have secured a water right that is superior to every other resident and business in the Coachella Valley.”

Case closed

The court’s refusal to hear the water agencies’ appeal effectively ends the matter and means that the tribe has succeeded in its quest to win claim to the groundwater that underlies their reservation, which includes much of Palm Springs.

Nothing is ever simple when it comes to water rights in the West, however. Although legal authorities said the court’s action strongly affirms Indian tribes’ claim to water that flows on or beneath their lands, a host of related issues are likely to be the subject of litigation for years to come — most crucially, the question of whether the tribes have the right to store water in underground aquifers.

For Palm Springs residents, the decision is likely to mean that green lawns and golf courses will become increasingly rare. While the tribes will still have to litigate the details, the court has clearly said that the Cahuila and other Indian tribes have priority when it comes to allocating the scarce water resources that support an ever-growing population in desert regions of the Southwest.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is a federally recognized Indian Tribe located in Palm Springs, California, with 31,500 acres of reservation lands that spread across Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, and into the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains. The Tribe currently owns and operates two 18-hole championship golf courses, the Spa Resort Casino in downtown Palm Springs and the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage.