Subscription Preview

To read the full article, you must log in or subscribe. Enter your email address:

A tribe wins rights to contested groundwater in court

A major federal court decision acknowledges that tribes have priority rights to groundwater — and could limit how much other users can take.

On the surface, Southern California’s Coachella Valley seems like a cushy, vibrant paradise. A short jaunt from Los Angeles, it’s known for its hot springs, golf courses and uber-hip music festival. But the popular retreat for celebrities, politicians and wealthy jetsetters is something of a mirage — at least where water is concerned. It’s a desert that receives a paltry three to five inches of rain a year.

To live here, people have always relied on groundwater, whether in historical Native American settlements or the modern resort city of Palm Springs. Surging population growth and tourism in recent decades have only increased demand. Local utilities now supply water to roughly 400,000 full-time residents, 121 golf courses, and 66,000 acres of dates, lemons, and other crops, and it’s taxing the aquifer. A recent NASA study found that the aquifer underlying the Coachella Valley has dropped by around 62 feet since 1960, despite programs that pipe Colorado River water underground to offset the depletions.

The Coachella Valley, California
PascalSijen/ Flickr (Creative Commons)
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who have called the valley home for centuries, have been anxious about the state of the water supply for years. In 2013, the tribe sued the Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency to halt groundwater pumping. And last month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a major victory to the tribe. The court said the tribe has legal rights to the groundwater — a decision that could restrict housing and resort development and set a precedent for water disputes between tribes and utilities across the West.

Sample Gallery

Comments about this article

Toby Thaler Subscriber
Apr 04, 2017 12:21 PM
"building moratoriums" — Well well (so to speak), limits to growth rears its ugly head.
The Taylors Subscriber
Apr 04, 2017 04:28 PM
there is absolutely no place for golf courses in any of the arid areas of the southwest.

From our friends

A constant commitment to the environment

Needless to say, we love and appreciate the fine work all of you do to illustrate the importance of our constant commitment to the environment.

Thanks to all of you for illuminating the critical issues of our world, country and the West. Keep up the great work!

Jeff and Lisa,
Atlanta, Georgia

From a HUGE admirer

I just want to tell you that I'm a huge admirer of High Country News. The reporting, the stories you write — it's so important to those of us in California who see ourselves as part of the West and share all its issues. And they're always all so well-written. When people I know move to the West, I give them a gift subscription.

— Dr. Stephanie Pincetl, UCLA