Home » Case Summaries » 2017 » Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, 849 F.3d 1262 (9th Cir. 2017).


Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, 849 F.3d 1262 (9th Cir. 2017).



The Agua Caliente Tribe (the Tribe)[1] brought an action for declaratory and injunctive relief against the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and the Desert Water Agency (DWA) in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. The Tribe requested a declaration that it had a federally reserved right to the groundwater underlying its reservation. The district court granted in part and denied in part the plaintiffs’ and defendants’ cross motions for partial summary judgment, holding that the federal reserved rights doctrine applied to groundwater and that the United States reserved appurtenant groundwater when it established the Tribe’s reservation.[2] The water agencies appealed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, agreeing that the reserved rights doctrine applies to groundwater and holding that the Tribe had a reserved right to the groundwater underlying its reservation because of the purpose for which the reservation was established.

The Tribe has lived in the Coachella Valley since before California became a state. The Agua Caliente Reservation was established primarily by two presidential executive orders, with some lands held in trust for the Tribe by the United States. The executive orders provided that these lands be set aside “for the permanent use and occupancy of the Mission Indians in southern California” and for “Indian purposes.”[3] Government reports made prior to the executive orders indicate that, in establishing the reservation, the United States sought to “secure the Mission Indians permanent homes, with land and water enough.”[4]

However, the Coachella Valley is arid, with surface water practically nonexistent for the majority of the year. Almost all of the water consumed in the region comes from the Coachella Valley Groundwater Basin. Since demand for the groundwater is high, the basin has been in a state of overdraft since the 1980s. Rather than pump groundwater on its reservation, the Tribe has been purchasing groundwater from CVWD and DWA.

The Tribe also receives a small amount of surface water. Pursuant to a 1938 California Superior Court adjudication,[5] which attempted to address water rights for users of the river system as a matter of state law, the Tribe is entitled to an allotment of surface water. However, the amount of water reserved for the Tribe under this adjudication was minimal, providing enough water to irrigate only 360 acres.[6] Moreover, most of this allotment was filled outside of the growing season because the river system’s flow peaks in the winter months. Thus, the Tribe’s main water source is the groundwater supplied by CVWD and DWA. The Tribe’s growing concerns over diminishing groundwater resources led to this action for declaratory and injunctive relief.

The Ninth Circuit reviewed the district court’s grant of partial summary judgment de novo, focusing on the sole issue of whether the Tribe had a federal reserved right to the groundwater.[7] Following the doctrine from Winters v. United States,[8] the Ninth Circuit structured its analysis in three steps.

First, the Ninth Circuit considered whether the United States intended to reserve water when it created the Tribe’s reservation. The water agencies argued that, on this question, the court must determine whether the water was necessary to fulfill the primary purpose of the reservation. If not, then the court should conclude that Congress did not intend the water to be impliedly reserved under a federal water right. The water agencies further contended that if other available sources of water can meet the reservation’s water demands, then the purpose of the reservation would not be defeated. In such situations, the water agencies argued that Congress intended to defer to state water law.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, reasoning that Congress did not defer to state water law with respect to reserved rights. The Ninth Circuit emphasized that the federal purpose for which land was reserved is the driving force behind the reserved rights doctrine. The question was not whether water is necessary at some point in time to maintain the reservation, but rather whether the purpose underlying the reservation envisions water use. Further, water was reserved only for primary purposes, or purposes which are directly associated with the reservation of the land. In this case, although the purposes set forth in the executive orders were imprecise, the Ninth Circuit recognized that the general purpose “to provide a home for the Indians” is a broad one that must be liberally construed.[9] The Ninth Circuit reasoned that water was inherently tied to the Tribe’s ability to live on the reservation, especially considering the arid nature of the Coachella Valley. Without water, the purpose of the reservation to support the Tribe as an agrarian society would be entirely defeated. Thus, the Ninth Circuit held that the United States implicitly reserved a right to water when it created the Tribe’s reservation.

Second, the Ninth Circuit considered whether the reserved rights doctrine encompasses groundwater. On this question, the Ninth Circuit first observed that the reserved rights doctrine limits reserved rights only to those waters which are “appurtenant” to the reservation.[10] The Ninth Circuit then reasoned that appurtenance refers generally to waters that are attached to the reservation. In other words, appurtenance does not limit reserved rights to surface water only. Thus, the Ninth Circuit held that the reserved rights doctrine reaches both surface water and groundwater that is appurtenant to reserved land. In this case, the creation of the Tribe’s reservation therefore established an implied right to use groundwater from the Coachella Valley Groundwater Basin.[11]

Finally, the Ninth Circuit considered whether the Tribe’s existing water rights under state law impacted its federal reserved right. On this point, the water agencies argued that a federal reserved right was unnecessary in light of the Tribe’s correlative right to groundwater under California state law, the Tribe’s failure to drill for groundwater on its reservation, and the Tribe’s entitlement to surface water. The Ninth Circuit rejected the water agencies’ arguments, observing that reserved water rights are superior to the rights of future appropriators. Further, as federal water rights, reserved water rights preempt conflicting state law. Additionally, reserved rights are not lost through non-use. The Ninth Circuit thus concluded that entitlements under state law do not impact the Tribe’s federally reserved water right.

In sum, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court, holding that the Tribe has a federal reserved right to the groundwater underlying its reservation and that this right is not supplanted by existing rights under state law. The United States Supreme Court denied certiorari.[12]

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The United States intervened as a plaintiff.
  2. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water Dist., No. EDCV 13-883-JGB, 2015 WL 13309103, at *11 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 24, 2015).
  3. Exec. Order of May 15, 1876; Exec. Order of Sept. 29, 1877.
  4. Comm’r of Indian Aff., Ann. Rep. 37 (1877).
  5. See United States v. Ahtanum Irr. Dist., 236 F.2d 321, 330–31 n.12 (9th Cir. 1956) (discussing the legal and factual history of the 1938 California Superior Court decree).
  6. The Agua Caliente Reservation consists of approximately 31,396 acres.
  7. The district court also held that the Tribe does not have an aboriginal right to the groundwater. The Tribe did not appeal this second holding, and thus the Ninth Circuit did not review the issue.
  8. Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908).
  9. Colville Confederated Tribes v. Walton, 647 F.2d 42, 47 (9th Cir. 1981).
  10. Cappaert v. United States, 426 U.S. 128, 136–37 (1976).
  11. The Ninth Circuit also noted that the parties did not dispute appurtenance, as the groundwater basin clearly underlies the Tribe’s reservation.
  12. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla v. Coachella Valley Water Dist., 849 F.3d 1262 (9th Cir. 2017), cert. denied, 86 U.S.L.W. 3263 (U.S. Nov. 27, 2017) (No. 17-42).
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