Stanford researchers map out groundwater at stake in the wake of a court decision that bolsters Native American rights to the precious resource across an increasingly arid West.
California’s Coachella Valley may be ground zero for a new chapter in water rights for Native American tribes, according to a new Stanford study published in the journal Science.
Better known for lush golf courses, glittering pools, a popular music festival and temperatures topping 120 degrees , this inland desert is also home to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which has fought since 2013 for federal courts to affirm its right to groundwater beneath its reservation. Lower courts ruled in the tribe’s favor, and in late 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal.
Observers immediately recognized that the decision could set a powerful precedent for tribal groundwater claims, which have suffered murky legal status for more than 100 years. But how much groundwater is at stake as tribes assert this newly bolstered right – and where these claims may clash with nontribal users in an increasingly arid West – remained uncharted until now.
Sizing up water rights
The study reveals that court decrees and settlements have resolved or proposed rights for tribes in western states to use more than 10.5 million acre-feet of surface water and groundwater annually. To put that in perspective, this would be nearly enough water to irrigate all of the alfalfa, almond and rice fields in California for a year. “It’s a major volume,” said lead author Philip Womble, a PhD student in environment and resources in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth).
Before the Agua Caliente ruling, the study shows, tribal rights exclusively for groundwater made up a small portion – 4 percent – of all tribal freshwater rights in 17 western states. Now, more tribes will likely seek to resolve their rights to control and use water from the aquifers beneath their land, according to Womble and his co-authors, who include Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Stanford’s Water in the West program, as well as Water in the West non-resident fellows Debra Perrone and Rebecca Nelson.
This shift comes at a time when questions of who owns the aquifer and how they can use the water holds increasing urgency, as western states face the likely prospect of demand outstripping the supply of legally available freshwater in most western watersheds by 2030. […]