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 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.