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Defining the Extent of Federal Reserved Rights to Groundwater: Coachella Valley Water District v. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians

By Simone Prince-Eichner*

Water rights are a contested matter in the American west, as exemplified by the case of Coachella Valley Water District v. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The parties there are litigating whether or not tribes, and other entities holding federally reserved lands, possess rights to the groundwater that lies beneath those lands.[1]

In May 2017, the Ninth Circuit issued a decision in favor of the Agua Caliente tribe, and in July 2017, the Coachella Valley Water District (“CVWD”) submitted a certiorari petition to the Supreme Court, appealing from the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.[2] The parties are currently awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court about whether it will grant certiorari.[3]

Important issues are at stake in this case: tribal sovereignty, water quality management and allocation, and federal control over state and local water distribution in the West. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling in favor of the Agua Caliente tribe reflects an expansive interpretation of a doctrine established by the 1908 Supreme Court case of Winters v. United States.[4] However, given that the Court may decline to endorse the legal conclusions and policy implications that the Ninth Circuit embraced, the victory granted to the tribe by the Ninth Circuit could be cut short if the Supreme Court takes the case.

In 1908, the Supreme Court held in Winters that when the federal government established Indian reservations—or when it selected lands for other federal purposes, such as national parks—the federal government also impliedly reserved rights to water resources whenever such rights were necessary to support the purposes behind the federal reservation of land.[5] Since then, a split has developed among lower courts about whether, under the “reserved rights doctrine” established by Winters, water rights reserved by the federal government encompass rights not only to surface water but also to groundwater.[6] The circuit split makes it more likely that the Supreme Court will grant certiorari.

In May 2013, the Agua Caliente tribe filed suit against CVWD, asserting rights to groundwater resources that lie beneath the tribe’s reservation lands.[7] On the basis of these asserted rights to water in the underground aquifer, the tribe argued the CVWD improperly decreased the quantity and quality of the water by removing more water than could be replenished each year and contaminating the aquifer by recharging it with polluted Colorado River water.[8]

In 2015, the US District Court for the Central District of California ruled in favor of the tribe, holding that the tribe had a reserved right under federal law to groundwater resources.[9] Two years later, in May 2017, the Ninth Circuit took the case. With no controlling federal authority, the Ninth Circuit assessed on its own whether the “reserved rights” doctrine of Winters applied to groundwater. Upholding the District Court’s ruling, the Ninth Circuit held that it did apply.[10]

In its July 2017 decision, the Ninth Circuit began by establishing, as a threshold matter, that the creation of the Agua Caliente reservation met the Winters requirement for impliedly reserving water rights due to the necessity of access to water in the reservation.[11] Because the Agua Caliente reservation was established in 1877 for the purpose of setting aside land for “the permanent use and occupancy of the Mission Indians,”[12] the court reasoned that the reservation could only sustain “permanent use and occupancy” if its residents could be guaranteed water rights.[13]

Having found that federal government recognized that a water source was necessary to the Agua Caliente tribe’s survival, the Ninth Circuit turned to the specific question of whether Winters contemplated reserved rights to both surface water and groundwater.[14] The court began with the premise that the “Winters doctrine was developed in part to provide sustainable land for Indian tribes whose reservations were established in the arid parts of the country.”[15] The court then reasoned that survival in such a context “is conditioned on access to water—and a reservation without an adequate source of surface water must be able to access groundwater.”[16] By extension, the court explained that there is “no reason to cabin the Winters doctrine to appurtenant surface water.”[17]

Granting the Agua Caliente tribe the chance to assert Winters rights to groundwater as well as surface water would restructure the “correlative” rights approach that currently prevails in California.[18] Under the correlative approach, water users are assigned a share of groundwater that correlates to the amount of land they own.[19] If the Ninth Circuit’s holding stands, the decision has the potential to set precedent for similarly situated tribes.[20] It also has the potential to strengthen the bargaining position that tribes hold in non-litigation negotiations with state and local water users.[21]  The decision would not only allow tribes to access larger quantities of water, but would also strengthen the role of tribes in making decisions about water quality.[22] Additionally, the implications of this case are not limited to tribes, given that the federal reserved rights doctrine also applies to other federal lands, such as national parks, monuments, and military bases.[23]

Seeking to avoid the new legal landscape that the Ninth Circuit’s decision would introduce, the CVWD’s petition to the Supreme Court opens the door for the Court to reconsider the Ninth Circuit’s decision and reasoning. In its petition for certiorari, the CVWD vigorously emphasized the “practical impact of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling,” criticizing the notion that tribes and the federal government would be able to exercise “preemptive federal rights that override the vigorous and on-going state and local efforts to ensure the future availability of groundwater in the West.”[24] The CVWD may strategically position this case as a matter of federalism in an effort to gain the support of members of the Court who may be wary of the idea that tribes and other holders of federal land can assert their rights to groundwater before state and local users who have already worked out water-sharing arrangements.

The Supreme Court is now faced with a decision about whether to take on a case that centers around questions about the scope of its ruling over one hundred years ago in Winters. If the subject of water rights was already fraught when the Court decided Winters in 1908, the increasing scarcity of water in the west has significantly amplified the stakes in the intervening years. Accordingly, this litigation implicates deeply consequential questions about the management of water resources, tribal sovereignty, and federal preemption of state regulation.

* Simone Prince-Eichner is an associate editor of MJEAL. She can be reached at

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[1] See Coachella Valley Water District v. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, SCOTUS Blog, (last visited Nov. 17, 2017).

[2] Petition for Writ of Certiorari to US Supreme Court, Coachella Valley Water District, Et al., v. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, at 3. July 5, 2017.

[3] SCOTUS Blog, supra, note 1.

[4] See id.

[5] Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908)

[6] Id.

[7] Ian James, Do Tribes Have Special Groundwater Rights? Water Agencies Appeal to Supreme Court in Landmark Case, Desert Sun, July 6, 2017.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] See Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water Dist., 849 F.3d 1262, 1265 (9th Cir. 2017).

[11] Id.

[12]  Id. at 1268 (quoting Exec. Order of May 15, 1876.)

[13] Id. at 1270.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 1271.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Brief of Respondent Agua Calinte Band of Cahuilla Indians in Opposition, Coachella Valley Water District, Et al., v. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, at 10 (Oct, 13, 2018).

[19] Id.

[20]  James, supra, note 7.

[21] Id.  

[22] Id.

[23] Brief of Respondent Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, supra note 18, at 3.

[24] Petition for Writ of Certiorari to US Supreme Court, supra note 2.


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