PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA — A federal judge ruled on Friday, March 23, that the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has federally reserved rights to groundwater based on the Winters doctrine. This decision is a critical step in how water is managed in the Coachella Valley in the future.
“This decision validates the Tribe’s diligent work to protect and preserve one of the Valley’s most important natural resources,” Agua Caliente Band Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe stated after the decision.
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is a federally recognized tribe based in Palm Springs, California.
In the decision, Judge Bernal wrote: “The federal government intended to reserve water for the Tribe’s use on its reservation. Rights to the groundwater underlying the reservation are appurtenant to the reservation itself.”
Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe
The ruling is consistent with settled federal law and affirms what Agua Caliente has sought from the water districts for over 20 years, which is recognition of its legitimate ownership interest in groundwater in the Coachella Valley and its interest in responsible management of the aquifer’s condition.
Water in the Coachella Valley aquifer is currently managed by local water districts.
For years, the rate of the water drawn from the aquifer has depleted natural levels, which is known as over-drafting of the aquifer.
In addition, the rate of use has meant that the natural replenishment cycle has not been able to return enough water to match historic water levels. In turn, water districts began importing polluted water from the Colorado River to replenish the water levels in the aquifer. And instead of pre-treating this water, the water districts put the water, as is, into the aquifer, which has significantly lowered the quality of water.
“These practices are not acceptable for long-term health and viability of the Coachella Valley water supply,” Chairman Grubbe said. “We called out this detrimental practice and brought it to the attention of the water districts over and over for years simply to be ignored.”