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March 31, 2015  |  Written by Brittany Lewis-Roberts

Federal District Court Finds That Agua Caliente’s Federal Reserved Water Rights Extend to Groundwater

On March 20, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California found that the federal reserved water rights of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (Agua Caliente or Tribe) extend to groundwater.  Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District et al., No. EDCV-13-833-JGB (C.D. Cal. Mar. 20, 2015) (order granting in part and denying in part plaintiffs’ and defendants’ motions for partial summary judgment).  The Tribe brought an action against the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency, alleging the Tribe’s rights to groundwater in the Coachella Valley and seeking to protect those water rights from overdraft and degradation.  The parties agreed to split the action into three phases, the first of which involves the primary legal question whether the Tribe’s reserved water rights include appurtenant groundwater.

Under the body of federal law known as the Winters doctrine (based on the seminal case ofWinters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908)), when the federal government withdraws federal land and reserves it for a purpose, it also reserves, by implication, appurtenant water in the amount necessary to fulfill the primary purpose of the reservation.  Federal reserved water rights vest as of the date of the reservation.  In this case, seven Executive Orders, beginning in 1865, created the Agua Caliente’s reservation for “permanent use and occupancy.”  The Tribe asserts that the water rights reserved to fulfill the purpose of this reservation include rights to the underlying groundwater in the Coachella Valley.

Looking at cases analyzing the Winters doctrine, the court explained that the analysis involves two distinct steps:  the question whether the reserved right exists at all, and then the question of quantifying the amount of water reserved.  Here, the court only considered the first question: whether the Agua Caliente’s reserved rights extend to groundwater appurtenant to the reserved land.  Other courts’ decisions on whether and how federal reserved rights extend to groundwater are not uniform.  In this case, based on the general purpose of the Tribe’s reservation, the court concluded that the reservation implied some water use, and based on the applicable authorities, the court reasoned that groundwater provides an appurtenant water source to fulfill that purpose.

As referenced above, the court did not decide the quantification question, that is, the amount of groundwater reserved for the Tribe’s use.  The parties deferred this question until a later phase of the litigation.  The court also certified its order for interlocutory appeal, as it involved a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial difference of opinion and that affects the rest of the litigation.

For more information on this case, please contact Brittany Lewis-Roberts at blewis-roberts@somachlaw.com.

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