In the 1908 case, Winters v. United States, the court ruled Indian tribes are entitled to sufficient water supplies for their reservations. But the Supreme Court has never specified whether those so-called “Winters rights” apply to groundwater in addition to surface water.Ian James writes about a fascinating case now making its way through the California courts:
Lawyers for the Coachella Valley’s largest water districts and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians presented their arguments to a federal appeals court in a water rights case that could set a precedent for tribes across the country.
The case hinges on the question of whether the Agua Caliente tribe holds a federally granted “reserved right” to groundwater beneath its reservation in Palm Springs and surrounding areas.
This case connects two really interesting gaps in US water law.
The first is the connection, or lack thereof, between groundwater and surface water. The law varies from state to state, but in many places the two types of water are treated separately under the law, even though they are clearly connected hydrologically. (Abrahm Lustgarten explains the disconnect here.)
The second gap is our inability to live up to the legal promises made when native communities were relegated to “reservations”. The word here needs to be considered carefully. The US Supreme Court in 1908 ruled that when the land was set aside for those native communities – the word is “reserved” – along with that land was the implicit legal right to use the land. Because without water, land in the arid West is substantially less useful. As James explains:
In the 1908 case, Winters v. United States, the court ruled Indian tribes are entitled to sufficient water supplies for their reservations. But the Supreme Court has never specified whether those so-called “Winters rights” apply to groundwater in addition to surface water.
The case in question here involves the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians near Palm Springs. The implications stretch across Indian Country.