Co-authored by Wes Miliband and guest-blogger Hayley K. Siltanen
The Ninth Circuit recently ruled that federal reserved water rights held by Indian tribes extend to groundwater underlying reservation lands. Determining the quantity of that groundwater, however, is reserved for another day.
In Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s declaration that the United States impliedly reserved appurtenant water sources, with “appurtenant” including groundwater, when it created the Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ reservation in the Coachella Valley of California. The decision marks the first time that a federal appellate court has recognized groundwater rights as being included in federal reserved water rights.
Federal reserved rights are water rights that are appurtenant to land that has been withdrawn from the public domain by the federal government, and that are necessary to accomplish the federal purpose of the withdrawn (or “reserved”) land. In a landmark decision issued over 100 years ago, Winters v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held that federal reserved rights apply to Indian reservations. These rights, known as Winters rights, derive from the federal purpose of the reservation. In the case of the Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (the “Tribe”), the Ninth Circuit explained that, “[w]ithout water, the underlying purpose—to establish a home and support an agrarian society—would be entirely defeated.”Continue Reading Tribes’ Federal Water Rights Include Groundwater—But How Much?