Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water Dist., 849 F.3d 1262 (9th Cir. 2017) (holding: (i) the United States impliedly reserved a water right when establishing the Agua Caliente Reservation; (ii) the Tribe’s implied federal reserved water right extended to groundwater; and (iii) the Tribe’s state water entitlements to groundwater did not disqualify its implied federal reserved water right).

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (“Tribe”) inhabited the Coachella Valley prior to California’s Admission to the Union in 1850. Two Presidential Executive Orders issued in 1876 and 1877 established the majority of the Agua Caliente Reservation. Today, the United States holds a series of lands that that are “interspersed in a checkerboard pattern” in trust for the Tribe.

The Coachella Valley contains an arid southwestern dessert. Rainfall averages three to six inches per year and the Whitewater River System, the only source of surface water, produces a fluctuating annual supply between 4,000 and 9,000 acre-feet that primarily occurs in winter months. Currently, the Tribe receives surface water from the Whitewater River System consistent with the Whitewater River Decree, a 1983 California Superior Court adjudication that addressed state-law water rights for river system users. The adjudication resulted in a state court order that allotted water for the Tribe’s benefit, primarily because the United States, as holder of partial Agua Caliente Reservation lands in trust, participated in the adjudication on the Tribe’s behalf. However, the adjudication reserves only a minimal amount of water for the Tribe, providing enough to irrigate nearly 360 acres of the reservation’s approximately 31,369 acres. Additionally, the river system peaks in the winter months, which leaves the allotment filled outside of growing season.

This inconsistent and “virtually nonexistent” surface water supply causes the Tribe to predominantly rely on groundwater for all consumptive use on the reservation during the year. Therefore, almost all regional water is sourced from the Coachella Valley Groundwater River Basin, the aquifer underlying the valley. The Tribe, however, does not pump groundwater on its reservation, but purchases groundwater from the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency (“water agencies”).

Over concern for diminishing groundwater resources, the Tribe filed an action for declaratory and injunctive relief against the water agencies in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. The Tribe requested a declaration that it had a “federally reserved right and an aboriginal right to the groundwater underlying the reservation.” The district court later granted the United States’ motion to intervene as a plaintiff to support the Tribe’s allegation that it had a reserved right to groundwater.

The parties divided the litigation into three phases. With respect to Phase I, the only phase relevant for this case, the district court held that “the reserved rights doctrine applied to groundwater and that the United States reserved appurtenant groundwater when it established the Tribe’s reservation.” Subsequently, the district court certified its order for interlocutory appeal and the water agencies petitioned the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for permission to hear the appeal. The court, on de novo review, addressed the only issue on appeal: whether the Tribe had a federal reserved right to the groundwater underlying its reservation. In so doing, the court approached its analysis in three steps.

First, the court determined whether the United States impliedly reserved water when establishing the Agua Caliente Reservation. This question is two-pronged: (1) whether water is reserved if a reservation’s primary purpose anticipates water use; and (2) if so, whether the Agua Caliente Reservation’s primary purpose contemplated water use.

The court began its analysis by examining the Winters doctrine, and found that it established that “federal reserved water rights are directly applicable ‘to Indian reservations and other federal enclaves, encompassing water rights in navigable and nonnavigable streams.’” However, the Winters doctrine is limited to certain situations; it reserves water necessary to accomplish the purported means of the reservation and reserves water if it is appurtenant to the withdrawn land. Following that understanding, the court differentiated the parties’ and the district court’s application of the Winters doctrine that specifically addressed whether the Tribe’s reserved right extended to groundwater from the more overarching issue concerning whether the mere existence of a federal reserved right depended on the Agua Caliente Reservation maintaining an implicit right to use water.

The court then evaluated the first prong when addressing the Tribe’s implied reserved right to water. The court invoked United States v. New Mexico and reasoned, “the federal purpose for which land was reserved is the driving force behind the reserved rights doctrine.” Further, that the New Mexico Court patterned a consistent conclusion whenever the reserved water rights doctrine is raised—an insufficient water supply defeats the purposes of the reservation. Therefore, the court adopted New Mexico’s holding that water is reserved when the reservation’s primary purpose foresees water use. The court then evaluated the second prong, whether the Tribe’s primary purpose contemplated water use. To answer this question, the court synthesized the Executive Orders establishing the Agua Caliente Reservation and Supreme Court precedent to conclude that “the primary purpose underlying the establishment of the reservation was to create a home for the Tribe, and water was necessarily implicated in that purpose.” Therefore, the United States impliedly reserved water for the Tribe.

Second, the court addressed whether the Tribe’s implied reserved water right extended to the Agua Caliente Reservation’s underlying groundwater. The court reiterated the Winters doctrine requirements and determined that although the Tribe met the first requirement that the reservation’s purported means necessitated water use, the second requirement that unappropriated water must be appurtenant to the reservation remained. To find a resolution, the court reasoned that appurtenance is not limited to surface water and extrapolated from Supreme Court precedent that the United States can protect groundwater and, along that vein, impliedly reserved water may include appurtenant groundwater. Further, the court considered the Tribe’s reliance on groundwater when reasoning that the minimal surface water availability conditions the Tribe’s survival on groundwater access. From this line of reasoning, the court clarified that the Winters doctrine purported to provide sustainable livelihoods to Tribes inhabiting reservations in arid areas, like the Agua Caliente Reservation, and included access to both appurtenant surface water and groundwater. Therefore, the Tribe’s implied reserved water right included groundwater.

Third, the court addressed whether the above two holdings withstood the water agencies’ arguments that: (1) the Tribe received water pursuant to California’s correlative rights doctrine; (2) the Tribe did not need a federal reserved right to groundwater in light of its allotted surface water from the Whitewater River Decree; and (3) the Tribe never drilled for groundwater on its reservation. The court rejected each in turn. First, federal water rights, such as the implied federal reserved water right, preempt state water rights. Second, New Mexico did not inquire into the current necessity of water, it focused on whether the reservation’s inception purported such a necessity. Third, lacking historical access to groundwater on the reservation did not foreclose the Tribe’s current access to groundwater. Therefore, compounded with the federal primacy of reserved water rights, the Tribe’s implied federal water right to groundwater remained intact.

Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court holding that the United States impliedly reserved appurtenant groundwater when creating the Agua Caliente Reservation.

                                                                                                        Gia Austin

Image: Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, California. Flickr User Bureau of Land Management, Creative Commons.


Annual Symposium 2017: At The Confluence: The Past, Present, and Future of Water Law

Denver, Colorado                         April 7, 2017

Science and the Courtroom: How Modeling Is Changing The Game

 

Meg Frantz, an engineer at Brown & Caldwell, moderated this panel discussion on science, data, and math modeling in water law. The panel featured: Dick Wolfe, State Engineer & Director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources; Chris Sanchez, a Hydrogeologist at Bishop-Brogden & Associates, Inc,; and Burke W. Griggs, visiting professor at Washburn University School of Law.

Chris Sanchez, who has testified in the Division 1 Water Court providing expert testimony about water, oil, and gas rules, offered a view from the perspective of an engineer and spoke about the difficulties related to communication especially with the more technical aspects of hydrology and water law. Sanchez also spoke about the varying accuracy models have in accounting for the interaction between groundwater and surface water. He indicated that current models can account for surface water fairly easy, but using models to make predictions about groundwater is much more difficult because there are still many unknowns and missing information in the field of groundwater modeling. Complicating this issue is that groundwater moves slowly and that some aquifers are buried and can be shallower, deeper, or more connected than others.

Moreover, Mr. Sanchez said that the impacts of groundwater wells on these aquifers and streams is also hard to predict because of all the variables and inputs involved, including the fact that aquifer depletion continues after the pumping stops. Mr. Sanchez’s said that the ground-surface water interaction is determined by the attributes of that individual, which are not always easily to isolate for the purposes of modeling. Next, Mr. Sanchez explored some of the different models used in many courtrooms—such as Modflow and others based on Glover inputs—before discussing communication and cultural issues in the world of water law. From the perspective of an engineer, Mr. Sanchez expressed that it is not always easy to communicate the technical work he does even to skilled attorneys and consultants. He continued on this theme and said that it was even more difficult to defend the models and work that water engineers do in court. He elaborated on the difference in the kind of testimony required when he appears in front of a water court judge or in front of a jury.

Dick Wolfe also offered an engineer’s perspective. Mr. Wolfe has been Colorado’s State Engineer for the Division of Water Resources for the last ten years. Mr. Wolfe spoke about the use of groundwater models in intra/interstate litigation and advocated for developing models for purposes other than litigation. However, Mr. Wolfe also discussed the importance challenging current groundwater models through litigation because states cannot manage what they cannot measure accurately. Mr. Wolfe pointed out the practical use of models in helping to develop rules, then later the operational plans based on these rules. He gave three instances of models being used in this way: creating irrigation rules in Arkansas River Basin, creating Compact compliance rules in the Republican River Basin, and in developing the Rio Grande Aquifer new-use rules in the Rio Grande decision support system. However, Mr. Wolfe explained that these models took a long time to create and were fairly expensive. But, this was not a recommendation to stop using models because Mr. Wolfe also emphasized the importance of science leading the way in policymaking and ensuring that the state legislature bases new laws on science and reality, not mere speculation.

Dr. Burke Griggs, a lawyer and professor at the Washburn University School of Law, provided an overview of some of the most contentious litigation between states over water-related issues. For example, Dr. Griggs talked at length about the Daubert motions for expert witness testimony in a case where Kansas sued Colorado. He emphasized the common practice of relying on their one’s own experts with their own models to make their case. He characterized this situation as being a “battle of the experts” and discussed the cultural differences that can arise when lawyers interact with engineers and other water resource professionals. Dr. Griggs also explored how the federal government can assist states by creating models used in litigation. For example, he said the USGS can help states develop more expansive Modflow models and pointed to a federally funded groundwater analysis used when a dispute arose between Mississippi and Tennessee. Dr. Griggs’ point was that federal funding has really helped modeling because without the funds from federal agencies, creating models is much more difficult for individual litigants.

Members of the panel followed their remarks by answering questions from the audience. In responding to the question of how to resolve the tension between legal and engineering cultures, panelists said that having proper expectations, developing realistic outcomes, and acknowledging differences in the different fields were all positive ways to make headway towards increasing communication. Another audience member asked about high transactions costs for litigants and what changes can be made to reduce them. Mr. Wolfe responded to this question by pointing to Colorado’s Decision Support System, a program that allows for anyone to browse a wide range of water-related databases and records, and explaining that it has made a lot of progress towards reducing these costs through increasing transparency.

Next, an audience member asked whether there could be a risk of repression of these models as there currently has been with climate change data. Panelists answered that models are relatively insulated from data repression by an unfriendly federal government because of the extensive framework that exists around these models and jurisdictional difficulties with the federal government trying to interfere as most models exist at the state level.

Following that question, another person asked whether water law is moving more towards a mediation-based practice and if so, if that would be any better than the current system. Mr. Dick Wolfe responded that there are problems with high transaction costs in water courts and that water judges were working to solve those issues. However, Mr. Wolfe was not entirely sure that a mediation-based model would work much more effectively than the current system, pointing to required non-binding arbitrations in the Republican River Compact that have lead to little actual progress. Alternatively, Mr. Wolfe also said that mediation has worked well in the Platte River Compact because it is more focused on species conservation.

The final question was about how to ensure courts are using the best science. The panelists responded to this by saying that water decrees have made things more complicated and that scientific tools are used on a case-by-case basis, so it is hard to know exactly what the “best” science is in an individual situation because each is so vastly different. But, they also said that the legislature can help make sure that scientists have the best tools and data that they need to present the “best” science in the courtroom through enacting legislation that enables science to continue to move forward and make more discoveries.

Gracen Short


Public Interest Environmental Law Conference 2017: One Cause, One Voice

Eugene, Oregon        March 2–5, 2017

California Groundwater Management

 

Presented by: Alison Divine, Community Legal Information Center, California State University, Chico.

Alison Divine discussed how the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (“SGMA”) has impacted the state. Divine first discussed the history of groundwater management in California, then the general functions of SGMA, and finally how SGMA has developed during in its infancy.

California’s groundwater system is expansive. Seventy-five percent of Californians depend on groundwater, in some part, for their primary water supply. The state recognizes two types of groundwater: subterranean streams, which consist of groundwater flowing in a known and definite channel; and percolating groundwater, which a California court once eloquently described as “vagrant wandering drops [of water] moving by gravity in any and every direction along the line of least resistance.” City of Los Angeles v. Hunter, 156 Cal. 603, 607 (1909). From 1850 until 1903, California landowners possessed absolute ownership of the groundwater under their land. After 1903, California adopted a correlative rights system for groundwater use. Until 2014, California only regulated its groundwater through local agencies, groundwater ordinances, and basin adjudications.

SGMA is California’s first statewide groundwater management act, and it provides a long-term framework for sustainable management in California by requiring the establishment of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (“GSAs”) in each county by June 30, 2017. GSAs may be formed in a variety of ways, including: (1) as local public agencies; (2) as a public water agency, county, or municipality; and (3) through a Joint Powers Agreement (“JPA”) or Memorandum of Agreement (“MOA”) between multiple agencies. Each GSA has wide authority to manage the sub-basin(s) on which it sits. GSAs may regulate groundwater well registration, measurements of groundwater extraction and metering, filing of annual reports, well spacing, and basin boundaries. GSAs may also establish sub-basins, limit groundwater extraction, and establish recharge, conjunctive management, or pumping reduction programs. However, to manage sub-basins and basins, GSAs must submit a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (“GSP”), which must include a description of the aquifer, historical data, a discussion of historical and projected water demand and supplies, a detailed map of the basin’s boundaries, and a map identifying existing and potential recharge areas. GSPs must also include a twenty-year sustainability goal, as well as a series of five-year interim milestones. GSA must submit GPS for basins designated as “high priority” by January 31, 2020 and medium priority basins by January 31, 2022.

Divine discussed how eleven counties in the Sacramento River Hydrologic Region had adapted to SGMA’s requirements by March 2017. For several of these counties, jurisdictional challenges have inhibited progress. In Sutter County alone, eight agencies of various sorts have submitted overlapping GSA applications to manage the county’s three sub-basins. Although the county contains high-priority areas, no GSP had been submitted as of the date of the presentation. Sacramento County, Glenn County, Yolo County, and Yuba County are all experiencing similar problems. With so many applications, it may be hard for these counties to come to a consensus on which GSAs to select. At the same time, however, two counties (Placer and Shasta) have received no GSA applications. Solano County has received one application but has yet to determine how to proceed.

Some counties in the Sacramento River Hydrologic Region have had more success. Colusa County, which contains ten sub-basins, has benefitted from seven GSA applicants coming together to form a JPA. Tehama County has approved a GSA comprising an eleven-member board of directors. The directors include three city representatives and three service-district representatives, as well as an additional representative from each of the county’s five supervisorial districts. The board for the Tehama County GSA has final authority over GSPs, future amendments, ordinances, rules regulations, and fees.

Butte County’s early transition to SGMA’s framework has also been successful. In 2015, Butte County hired a consulting farm to help it integrate the county’s groundwater management into SGMA. Although fifteen agencies have sought GSA status, the county has implemented a Groundwater Pumpers Advisory Committee, which first met in January 2017. Butte County, Tehama County, and Colusa County have all experienced various levels of success in preparing for SGMA’s early deadlines. These counties provide an example of what effective, long-term, and local management of groundwater may look like in California.

Matthew Kilby

Image: A vernal pool near Oroville, in Butte County, California. Flickr user, mary. Creative Commons.


Silver v. Pueblo Del Sol Water Co., 384 P.3d 814 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2016) (holding: (i) that the Arizona Department of Water Resources’ (“ADWR”) interpretation of “legal availability” was valid under the statute defining “adequate water supply”; (ii) that ADWR must consider an unquantified federal reserved water right for the purposes of an Adequate Water Supply Designation (“AWSD”); and (iii) that ADWR was not required to separately consider the impact of pumping on a conservation area and the local surface or groundwater).

In 1988, the United States Congress designated roughly thirty-six miles of the San Pedro River basin (“Basin”) as a national conservation area (“Conservation Area”), and simultaneously created a federal reserved water right for the Conservation Area “in a quantity sufficient to fulfill the purpose” of protecting the public lands surrounding the River. The Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) manages the Conservation Area. Since 1989, the BLM has filed three statements of claim for the Conservation Area covering surface and groundwater.

The General Stream Adjudication for the Gila River System (“Gila Adjudication”), active for approximately 40 years, has exclusive jurisdiction to adjudicate the conflicting claims and water rights for the Basin. BLM federal reserved rights are part of the the Gila Adjudication. The Gila Adjudication will determine whether BLM “has a reserved right to the groundwater ‘where other waters are inadequate to accomplish’” the reservation’s purpose and the minimum amount necessary to achieve that purpose.

Pueblo Del Sol Water Company (Pueblo) is a private water company. Pueblo serves an area five miles from the San Pedro River. In June 2011, Pueblo applied for an AWSD, which would allow it to pump groundwater to a planned community subdivision and other projects. Pueblo’s application included its Certificate of Convenience and Necessity (“CC&N”), a certification provided by the Arizona Corporation Commission to public utilities. Pueblo sent its application to ADWR, the agency that reviews AWSD applications. Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 45—108 requires subdivision developments outside active water management areas to show the existence of an adequate water supply as designated by ADWR. Under ADWR’s regulations, an adequate supply requires continuously legally and physically available water to satisfy the proposed needs for at least one hundred years. BLM objected to the Pueblo’s application, citing failure to properly analyze availability of water under ADWR’s regulations.

ADWR rejected the objection and accepted Pueblo’s application. BLM appealed to the Superior Court of Arizona, which reversed ADWR’s decision. The lower court held that ADWR abused its discretion because ADWR failed to meet its statutory duty to ensure that the water source will be available for at least 100 years. The lower court found that ADWR’s definition of “legal availability” erroneously allowed a decision to be based solely on whether the applicant had a CC&N. ADWR and Pueblo appealed the judgment.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals of Arizona decided three issues: (1) whether ADWR’s interpretation of “legal availability” under the statute defining adequate water supply was valid; (2) whether ADWR should have considered BLM’s unquantified reserved water right in its AWSD determination; (3) and whether ADWR was required to consider the impact of pumping on the Conservation Area and local surface and groundwater.

First, BLM argued that ADWR failed to make a valid determination of legal availability when it accepted Pueblo’s application without initially considering the federal government’s senior, unquantified federal reserved right. The court disagreed with BLM, finding that ADWR’s interpretation of legally available was valid when the statutes and regulations were read together.

Legal availability is a two step determination under ADWR’s interpretation of A.R.S. § 45–108(I)(1). First, ADWR must find that the water company is using the water for a reasonable and beneficial use. Second, ADWR must find that the water company has a legal means of delivering the water. ADWR has determined under R12–15–718(C) that the second step means a private water company has a CC&N.

The court agreed with ADWR that Pueblo’s planned use of the water was reasonable and beneficial because they planned to supply a subdivision with the water, thus satisfying the first step. The court also agreed with ADWR that Pueblo demonstrated a legal means of delivering the water because it had a CC&N, thus satisfying the second step. The court explained that ADWR’s determination that the second step requires the company to have a CC&N should be given great weight because the Director is an expert in the field vested with broad powers to achieve groundwater conservation. The court explained further that the department’s requirement that a water company have a CC&N kept with the consumer protection purposes of the statute because it requires the utility to be sufficiently financially viable to deliver, store, and treat such water.

The court also noted that in addition to determining mere legal availability, the Director of the ADWR has a more involved duty to determine whether adequate water is available. To make this determination, the Director is obligated to consider physical availability, which required the director to consider the water already commited to approximately 200 users. The ALJ determined that the Director considered Pueblo’s proposed water source and the demands from other users, and that Pueblo demonstrated that sufficient water would be available for 100 years.

Second, BLM argued that ADWR should consider its unquantified federal reserved water right, which has priority over Pueblo’s. ADWR countered by arguing that determination of those water rights fell under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Gila Adjudication and could not be adjudicated by ADWR in this proceeding. The court agreed with BLM, finding that ADWR not only had jurisdiction to consider the BLM’s claimed right, but had a duty to do so.

The court interpreted the language of R12–15–716(B), which requires the Director to consider the existing uses of groundwater, to include the consideration of the BLM’s federal reserved right. The court found that requiring ADWR to consider BLM’s right was in keeping with the intent of the groundwater statutes to protect Arizona’s economy and welfare, and to provide a comprehensive framework for the management and regulation of grounrwate, without compromising the preservation of the conservation area.

The court stated ADWR could use its expertise and knowledge to create an educated estimate of BLM’s quantified water right. However, the court distinguished ADWR’s duty to consider BLM’s claim from quantifying it. The court explained that quantification was the exclusive domain of the Gila Adjudication.

Finally, BLM argued that Pueblo’s proposed pumping might interfere with the Conservation Area and local surface or groundwater. The court found that ADWR was not required to separately consider the impact of pumping on the Conservation Area and local surface or groundwater. The court did not want to impose an obligation beyond ADWR’s obligation to consider adequate water.

Accordingly, the court vacated the judgment of the superior court, and remanded the action to ADWR with instructions to consider the BLM’s water rights claim in its evaluation of Pueblo’s application.

Trevor C. Lambirth

Image: Snow above the San Pedro River valley. Flickr user Lon&Queta, Creative Commons.


Over the last five months, Oregon lawmakers have been considering three bills that address the state’s ongoing inability to measure available groundwater as well as the state’s funding options for this much-needed research. Oregon’s agricultural industry, which accounts for eighty-five percent of the state’s water consumption, has been largely unregulated because the state’s Water Resources Department does not have updated knowledge as to how much groundwater is actually available. The long-term sustainability of water sources is an issue making its way to the forefront of many state legislatures, especially the agriculture-heavy states impacted by the recently unpredictable climate.

Oregon is one of many states that allows ranchers to pump water from underground sources, provided they obtain the proper permit. Oregon’s problem is that the state’s Water Resources Department has been handing out permits without knowing how much groundwater is available. Oregon Governor Kate Brown recommended in the 2017-2019 budget that the state double its capacity to perform groundwater research.

Oregon ranchers can legally extract nearly one trillion gallons of groundwater per year; however, a less established number is how much water the state collects per year from precipitation and other sources. The Pacific Northwest state has experienced an explosion of wells in recent decades as the state’s population continues to grow. There are an estimated 400,000 wells in the state, and the majority of well owners are simply on an honor system not to exceed their groundwater allowance. Even without consideration of recent droughts, it is clear that precipitation has not been replenishing the groundwater that Oregon ranchers are pumping. Over-pumping wells depletes Oregon creeks, which harms fish, and threatens communities as well as wildlife.

A permitted rancher is allowed to drill, so long as the well will not have a substantial impact on any river or lake. However, wells within a mile of a stream are subject to stricter rules in the state. The Oregon Water Resources Department is the state agency that appropriates groundwater and allows irrigators to dig new wells. The department is required to make sure the added stress of a new well will not drain an aquifer; yet up until one year ago, even when regulators suspected harm, permits were still being given out. Recently, state officials realized that the lax permit process was depleting Oregon’s water, forcing the department to stop processing new applications. The department contends that they lacked sufficient data to realize sooner that the over-approval of permits was causing water shortages. The department’s budget and staffing has remained stagnant over the past thirty years. Oregon lawmakers have made efforts to increase the department’s budget ever since it was cut in the last recession, but there has been enormous pushback from ranchers and other agricultural interests who have brought lawsuits and organized bills to stop state regulators from imposing water restrictions.

The most recent full-scale review of Oregon’s groundwater supply was conducted in 1968 by the federal government, which found that there was a shortfall of 11 billion gallons of water. The 1968 study found that in Harney Valley, one of Oregon’s nine key agricultural areas at risk of over-pumping, precipitation returned eighty-five billion gallons of water per year, while Harney Valley ranchers are permitted to withdrawal ninety-six billion gallons of groundwater per year. There is a major problem between the supply and demand of groundwater in Oregon’s agricultural areas, and since 1968, water use has only increased.

Current state-funded researchers have analyzed Harney Valley’s groundwater supply and expect to finish their study by 2020. However, Harney Valley is one of eighteen drainage basins in the state that require additional research to determine how much groundwater is actually available. At the current state spending levels, Oregon’s current research team will not complete studies of all eighteen basins until 2096. The state would suffer a major water crisis if Oregon ranchers continued to over-pump while waiting for research results during this seventy-nine-year gap. Oregon’s Water Resources Department suggested that completion of the water basin studies would cost between forty-five million and seventy-five million dollars.

Governor Brown proposed a new budget plan in December 2016 that requested 1.8 million dollars devoted to a new team of researchers to study the underground water sources in Oregon. Under the plan, five new field workers would be hired to perform research projects every five years. The new plan proposed an increase in funding for Oregon’s Water Resources Department of nine percent, bringing the departments total spending to $118.6 million. The Governor recognized that ongoing development in combination with drought conditions have forced Oregon into an unsustainable state.

Oregon lawmakers have also been presented with three bills that address the issue of how to pay for an expansion in the state’s groundwater studies. Oregon Representative Ken Helm introduced all three bills,

Fee for groundwater research

The first bill would charge water users, both business and agricultural, a one hundred dollar annual fee with a cap that would go towards groundwater research. Pursuant to the bill, personal wells would be exempt. Former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber proposed a similar one hundred dollar fee in 2013 but pulled all support for the fee just one day later due to significant backlash. If passed, the first proposed bill would raise roughly eight million dollars in the 2017-2019 biennium for the Water Resources Department. Outside of the electricity costs of operating their water pumps, water users in Oregon currently pay nothing for the water they use.

Mandatory monitoring

The second proposed bill would require water users to install a measuring device that captures the rate and amount of water at each point it diverts from the water source. The state currently has no way to measure how much water well owners, who are on an honor system not to over-pump, use. Measuring devices can cost up to a few thousand dollars. While the measuring device is seemingly a one-time investment for water users, the device may require additional costly maintenance.

Budget increase for more groundwater research

The third bill proposed calls for $8.2 million in general fund dollars to help pay for the groundwater research expansion. The public’s response to the proposed bill is mixed, with some farmers applauding the legislative action and others disgruntled by the undue burden placed on water users. The third bill was endorsed by the House Energy and Environment Committee and passed on to budget writers in Salem, but in June, legislative budget writers approved a Water Resources Department budget that had no additional money for groundwater studies.

Oregon’s policy has been to approve permits for new wells so long as there appears to be no potential harm to neighboring water sources. Despite the lack of data behind the actual amount of groundwater available in the state, Oregon’s policy in the past has been to approve the building of new wells. One year ago, however, state officials halted all permit approvals. Governor Brown’s budget plan suggests her understanding, with many in agreement, that it is impossible to determine the potential harm to neighboring water sources when the state does not have sufficient knowledge on how much groundwater is available. In response to the proposed legislation, Oregon’s policy of approving wells may become much stricter. The state may choose to adopt a statute similar to Colorado’s. In Colorado, applicants who wish to build new wells have the burden of proving that enough water already exists before a permit is granted. Colorado’s Division of Water Resources also publishes annual reports on groundwater level data collected by the division available to the public. Another potential response is to adopt a more stringent cap of total water use where users can buy and sell water rights, similar to the common practice in Australia. Oregon could also choose to charge a per-gallon fee on owners of water rights.

A stricter approach to the way Oregon allocates well permits may be in the state’s future, but it could take multiple legislative sessions before legislation is passed. Lawmakers did support one water-funding bill this session, projected to bring in $838,000 in the next biennium through increased fees on water rights applications and transfers. The fee increase is a slow start as Oregon continues to fall behind on the measuring of its water usage. Helm will potentially revive the bills in the next short legislative session in 2018.

 

Sources:

Kelly House & Mark Graves, Water giveaway threatens livelihoods, wildlife, The Oregonian (Aug. 26, 2016), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/page/draining_oregon_day_1.html.

Andrew Theen, Gov. Brown asks to expand groundwater studies following Oregonian investigation, The Oregonian (Dec. 3, 2016), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2016/12/gov_kate_brown_asks_to_expand.html.

Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Lawmaker wants groundwater tracking and fees to speed up research, The Oregonian (Dec. 22, 2016), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2016/12/lawmaker_now_is_a_good_time_to.html.

Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Lawmakers plan hearings on 3 water bills, The Oregonian (Mar. 21, 2017), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2017/03/draining_oregon_lawmakers_will.html.

Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Bill to fund $8.2 million in groundwater studies passes key hurdle, The Oregonian (Apr. 14, 2017), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2017/04/draining_oregon_bill_to_fund_8.html.

Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Water bills dry up in Legislature, The Oregonian (June 29, 2017), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2017/06/draining_oregon_water_bills_dr_1.html.

Nick Harrington & Peter Cook, Groundwater in Australia (The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, 2014), http://www.groundwater.com.au/media/W1siZiIsIjIwMTQvMDMvMjUvMDFfNTFfMTNfMTMzX0dyb3VuZHdhdGVyX2luX0F1c3RyYWxpYV9GSU5BTF9mb3Jfd2ViLnBkZiJdXQ/Groundwater%20in%20Australia_FINAL%20for%20web.pdf.

State of Oregon, Governor’s Budget 2017-2019, http://www.oregon.gov/das/Financial/Documents/2017-19_gb.pdf, (last visited Mar. 27, 2017).

Ground Water Levels, Colorado Division of Water Resources, http://water.state.co.us/groundwater/Levels/Pages/HydroGeo.aspx, (last visited Mar. 27, 2017).

43 Or. Rev. Stat. § 520.025 (2016).

Image: Welcome sign for Harney County, Oregon. Flickr user Ken Lund, Creative Commons.


Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a six-part collaborative series between the University of Denver Water Law Review and the Stanford Environmental Law Journal that examines the upcoming Ninth Circuit case, Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District and the development of the doctrine of federal reserved rights to water.

Introduction

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (“Agua Caliente”) holds impliedly reserved water rights in the Coachella Valley in Southern California.  President Ulysses S. Grant established the Agua Caliente’s reservation by Executive Order in 1876.  Today, water in the Coachella Valley is scarce, and the Agua Caliente seeks to satisfy the tribe’s needs by asserting that the tribe’s reserved water rights include the right to groundwater resources.  However, controlling law is unclear on the issue of whether tribal reserved water rights extend to groundwater.  State supreme courts are split on the issue.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Ninth Circuit”) will be the first federal court of appeals in forty years to address the issue.  Specifically, the Ninth Circuit will consider whether when the government created Agua Caliente’s reservation the government impliedly reserved rights to groundwater in the context of California’s correlative water rights framework.

Background on Federal Reserved Rights to Water

Federal law provides a framework for Native American tribes’ possession of water rights.  These tribal water rights impliedly arise from the establishment of the reservation.  The reservation grant thus provides a property right to the land and an implied right to sufficient water to fulfill the purposes of the reservation.  Winters v. United States was the seminal case that established the implied reservation doctrine.  The Supreme Court held in Winters that the Fort Belknap tribes gained the right to use unappropriated water from the Milk River for the reservation needs.

Tribal reserved rights vest at the creation of the reservation and hold priority over those of future appropriators.  Tribes do not abandon the reserved rights by nonuse.  Further, most federal reservations predate, and therefore hold priority over, state water law rights.  Prior court decisions further explain the application of Winters to groundwater.

Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater Recognized by Litigation

The Agua Caliente court found persuasive that every court, with the exception of the Wyoming Supreme Court in a 1989 decision, that has addressed the issue of whether Winters extends to groundwater held in the affirmative.  Many courts declined to directly address the issue, but acknowledged the possibility that Winters could encompass groundwater.  The cases that have previously recognized tribal reserved rights to groundwater are not abundant, but they followed one of two lines of reasoning.  Some courts relied on the hydrologic interrelationship between groundwater and surface water to find that Winters applies to both.  Other courts took a logical approach and reasoned that groundwater should be available to fulfill a water reservation along with surface water.

In In re Gila River System & Source, the Arizona Supreme Court was the first court to expressly hold that the federal reserved rights doctrine extended to groundwater.  The Gila court’s 1999 opinion acknowledged that the hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water is such that groundwater pumped from a distance may significantly diminish the surface flow.  Nonetheless, Gila deemed the distinction between groundwater and surface water as insignificant for purposes of applying the reserved rights doctrine.  Even though the Gila court expressly extended the reserved rights doctrine to groundwater, it restricted tribal rights to groundwater.  Gila limited tribal reserved rights to groundwater to “where other waters were inadequate to accomplish the purpose of the reservation.”

In 2002, the Montana Supreme Court recognized a tribal federal reserved right to groundwater in Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes v. Stults.  In Salish, the court prohibited the state agency from issuing water use permits until the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes quantified their water rights.  Like Gila, the court noted that the groundwater must be necessary to fulfill the purposes of reservation, but refrained from determining whether the groundwater at issue met this standard.  Instead, the court ruled that the tribes’ federally reserved water rights included groundwater.  The court’s holding was rooted in logic.  The court failed to find a reason to exclude groundwater from the tribes’ reserved water rights, so it refrained from limiting the tribes’ rights in such a way.

The hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water formed the basis of the Ninth Circuit’s extension of Winters to groundwater in United States v. Orr Water Ditch Co.  In that case involving the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, the court reasoned that the reciprocal hydraulic relationship between groundwater and surface water is such that allocations of groundwater would predictably affect the surface water in a nearby flowing river.  Further, the court interpreted the decree that reserved water in the Truckee River included a right to groundwater if the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe needed groundwater to fulfill the purpose of the reservation.  The court additionally held that because the tribe’s decreed rights were the two most senior water rights in the Truckee River and those rights extended to groundwater, other users’ allocations of groundwater may not adversely affect the tribe’s right to the surface water.

In New Mexico ex rel. Reynolds v. Aamodt, a New Mexico district court extended Winters to groundwater for hydrological reasons.  This case involved the Pueblo Indians’ prior right to water in a Rio Grande tributary for domestic and irrigation uses.  The decree gave the tribe water rights appurtenant to its irrigated acreage.  The court held that water rights appurtenant to the tribe’s land included groundwater because groundwater and surface water were physically interrelated, and therefore both were appurtenant to the tribe’s land.

Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater Recognized by Settlement

Indian Tribes have entered into settlement agreements to resolve disputes over federally reserved rights to groundwater.  Many of these settlement agreements expressly recognized tribal federally reserved rights to groundwater.

For example, a 2007 settlement agreement between the United States, the Lummi Indian Nation, and the State of Washington recognized the tribe’s right to groundwater on the Lummi Reservation in Northwest Washington.  The agreement resolved a water rights case in which the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington held that Winters rights on the Lummi Reservation extend to groundwater.  The agreement gave the Lummi the right to groundwater on the Lummi Peninsula.  Specifically, the agreement allocated the right to use 120 acre-feet per year of groundwater to the State of Washington, Department of Ecology, and the remainder of the groundwater to the Lummi.  The Lummi gained the exclusive right to regulate the use of groundwater underlying the reservation, and the agreement prohibited groundwater withdrawal unless the Lummi had authorized the withdrawal.

In addition to court settlements, state and federal settlement acts have resolved disputes over groundwater rights.  Many of these settlement acts recognize a tribal reserved right to groundwater.  One such federal settlement act is the Snake River Water Rights Act of 2004.  This act resolved water rights disputes between the Nez Perce Tribe, the State of Idaho, and private water rights holders.  The settlement act clarified water rights in the Snake River Basin in Idaho, and it allocated to the tribe the right to groundwater.  Focusing on the hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water, the settlement quantified the tribe’s right to surface water and stated that the right extends to the groundwater source beneath.

Limitations on Use of Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater

Several courts that recognized tribal reserved rights to groundwater placed limitations on the rights.  Federal reservation grants originally derived from the idea that the water is impliedly reserved to the extent that the water is necessary to fulfill the purpose of the reservation.  The Ninth Circuit has broadly defined the purpose of the reservation as it relates to water rights in order to provide a home for native peoples.  Courts that analyzed groundwater in the context of Winters considered whether groundwater was necessary to fulfill the reservation’s purpose.  The reservation grant itself thus set an initial, and broad, limitation on groundwater rights.  Courts have limited tribal reserved rights to groundwater based on quantity, pumping maximum, purposes of groundwater usage, sales outside the reservation, and necessity.

The Nevada Supreme Court limited the quantity of groundwater allocations on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation in Pyramid Lake Palute Tribe of Indians v. Ricci.  The court established the limitation on groundwater as the amount of water in the Orr Ditch Decree adjudication.  The court held that while the decree impliedly gave the Pyramid Lake Palute Tribe a right to groundwater, the decree restricted that right to the tribe’s personal yield of water as set forth in the decree.  Because the specified amount of water in the decree represented the tribe’s full adjudication, the tribe had no right to groundwater in excess of that amount.

In a 1990 settlement agreement between Idaho and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the tribes discussed the right to water under, arising on, flowing across, adjacent to, or otherwise appurtenant to the reservation.  The agreement limited the tribes’ respective rights in terms of necessity: the agreement restricted the tribes’ use of groundwater to instances where their diverted water from other sources was insufficient.  If the one of the tribes diverted less than the agreed-upon quantity, the tribe had the exclusive right to divert groundwater.

A settlement contract between the Jicarilla Apache Tribe and the United States limited groundwater rights with regard to the effect on the surface water sources.  The contract addressed water rights in the Navajo River, Navajo Reservoir, and San Juan-Chama Project.  Under the contract, the tribe had the express right to adjudicate water rights from either the groundwater or surface water.  The tribe gained the right to lease its water off-reservation, but the contract prohibited the tribe from withdrawing groundwater if doing so would adversely impact the surface water source.  As an additional measure relating to the protection of surface water sources, the contract required the tribe to implement a conservation program.

Previous Cases and Potential Guidance to Examining Agua Caliente Defendants’ Arguments

The Agua Caliente court distinguished the water at issue from other cases recognizing tribal reserved right to groundwater.  Many prior cases focused on the hydrological connection between surface water and groundwater to extend Winters to groundwater.  However, Agua Caliente did not involve hydrologically connected groundwater and surface water.  The defendants in Agua Caliente argued that the tribe did not need groundwater to fulfill its reservation’s purpose, so Winters did not apply.  Various courts have previously considered this argument, but each court implemented a somewhat different solution.  Nonetheless, reference to the history and trends of previous cases may help define and clarify the scope of the reserved rights doctrine in relation to the Agua Caliente groundwater.

Daphne Hamilton, J.D., University of Denver College of Law, 2016

Image: Cahuilla Tewanet Vista Point, Santa Rosa / San Jacinto Mountains, California.  Flickr user Tony Webster, Creative Commons.

 

Sources:

Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, No. EDCV 13-883-JGB, 2015 WL 1600065 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 20, 2015).

Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963).

Colville Confederated Tribes v. Walton, 647 F.2d 42 (9th Cir. 1981).

Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes v. Stults, 59 P.3d 1093 (Mont. 2002).

In re Gila River Sys. & Source, 989 P.2d 739 (Ariz. 1999).

In re Snake River Basin Water System, 764 P.2d 78, 81 (Idaho 1988), agreement ratified by Snake River Water Rights Act of 204, Pub. L. No. 108-447, 118 Stat. 2809.

New Mexico ex rel. Reynolds v. Aamodt, 618 F.Supp. 993, 1010 (D.N.M. 1985).

Pyramid Lake Palute Tribe of Indians v. Ricci, 245 P.3d 1145 (Nev. 2010).

United States v. Orr Water Ditch Co, 600 F.3d 1152 (9th. Cir. 2010).

United States ex rel. Lummi Indian Nation v. Washington, Dep’t of Ecology, (W.D. Wash. Nov. 20, 2007) (approving settlement agreement).

Winters v. U.S., 207 U.S. 564 (1908).

Settlement Agreement: Contract between the US and the Jicarilla Apache Tribe (Dec. 8, 1992).

Royster, Judith V., 47 Idaho L. Rev. 255, Conjunctive Management of Reservation Water Resources: Legal Issues Facing Indian Tribes (2011).

The 1990 Fort Hall Indian Water Rights Agreement (Jul. 10, 1990).

 


Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a six-part collaborative series between the University of Denver Water Law Review and the Stanford Environmental Law Journal that examines the upcoming Ninth Circuit case, Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District and the development of the doctrine of federal reserved rights to water.

Agua Caliente raises pressing issues at the intersection of Federal Indian law and water law that have yet to be conclusively resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Among these issues are whether federal reserved water rights apply to groundwater and the scope and circumstances under which aboriginal water rights, with a priority date of time immemorial, may be claimed. This piece explores in depth the Agua Caliente’s claim to aboriginal rights to groundwater, and how the district court ruled on this claim in its March 20, 2015 ruling on summary judgment.

Background on Federal Indian Water Rights

Although the law of Indian water rights remains in flux, water rights potentially available to federally recognized tribes fall into two categories: 1) federal reserved, or Winters, water rights and 2) aboriginal, or Winans, water rights. Both types are at issue in Agua Caliente, and while this post primarily discusses the Agua Caliente Band’s aboriginal water rights claim, an overview of both types of rights provides useful background.

First, tribes may be entitled to federal reserved water rights. The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized reserved water rights in Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908), which concerned the Fort Belknap Indian reservation in Montana. The Milk River flows through the Fort Belknap reservation, and, at the time of the case, a number of non-Indian Montanans had obtained state appropriative rights to the river’s water. The federal government sought to restrain these state-sanctioned users from diverting water upstream of the reservation, and the question arose whether the Indian reservation possessed water rights through which it could restrain other appropriators. In response to this question, the Court held the reservation did possess water rights because, in setting aside the Fort Belknap Indian reservation, the federal government reserved water sufficient to fulfill the purpose of the reservation. In other words, if by treaty the United States reserved land to provide a tribal agricultural homeland, the resulting Indian reservation and its occupants would possess federal reserved water rights to the quantity of water necessary to fulfill that agricultural purpose. Later courts, such as Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963), clarified that these rights apply to waters appurtenant to the reservation and have a priority date commensurate to the date of the treaty or other federal action reserving the lands.

In addition to reserved water rights, tribes have invoked aboriginal water rights carrying a priority date of time immemorial. The key Supreme Court case supporting such rights is United States v. Winans, 198 U.S. 371 (1905). While Winans was not a water rights case, it contains a principle of Indian law applicable to water rights, namely that treaties and other federal actions are not a grant of rights to the Indians, but rather a grant of rights from them. Thus, according to Winans, tribes retain rights that they did not explicitly cede in a treaty or other agreement. In the case of Winans, these retained rights included hunting and fishing.

The central case recognizing the Winans principle with respect to water rights is United States v. Adair, 723 F.2d 1394 (9th Cir. 1983). There, the Ninth Circuit held the Klamath Tribe of Oregon possessed aboriginal title to certain lands, hunting, and fishing rights, and “by the same reasoning, an aboriginal right to the water used by the Tribe as it flowed through its homeland.” Id. at 1413. While the Klamath Tribe ceded title to most of its ancestral lands by treaty, the Tribe retained exclusive use and occupancy rights. Relying on Winans, the Adair court found that there was “no indication in the treaty, express or implied, that the Tribe intended to cede any of its interest in those lands it reserved for itself.” Id. at 1414. Thus, the court held, the Tribe possessed a continuing water right on the Klamath Reservation to support its hunting and fishing lifestyle. This right, the court explained, carried a priority date of “time immemorial.” Id.

Reserved and Aboriginal Rights in Agua Caliente

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (“Agua Caliente” or “Tribe”) is a federally recognized tribe with a reservation in southern California’s Coachella Valley. The Tribe has used and occupied the land constituting and surrounding their current reservation for generations. The Tribe’s ancestral homeland in the Coachella Valley forms part of the Sonoran desert, where water is scarce, particularly in California’s current drought. In 2013, the Agua Caliente sued the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency seeking, among other requests, a declaration that the Tribe possesses both federal reserved and aboriginal rights to the Valley’s groundwater. This lawsuit began in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California.

The parties to the suit agreed to break the action into three phases. Phase I, which was decided in March 2015, addressed two primary legal questions: (1) whether the Agua Caliente held federal reserved rights to groundwater under the Winters doctrine, and (2) whether the Tribe held aboriginal rights to groundwater. The court held the Tribe’s federal reserved water right included a right to groundwater. The court found the reservation’s purpose was to provide a tribal homeland, and thus the Tribe possessed a federal reserved water right sufficient to fulfill that purpose. The court reasoned that this right extended to the groundwater beneath the Tribe’s land as an appurtenant source of water. See Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, Case No. EDCV 13-883-JGB, 2015 WL 1600065 (E.D. Cal., Mar. 20, 2015) at 7-10 (hereinafter “Agua Caliente”). Because the extension of the Winters doctrine to groundwater has not been settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, this constitutes a major victory for the Tribe.

The Eastern District, however, denied the Tribe’s aboriginal rights claim. This section recounts the parties’ arguments in this case.

i. The Parties’ Arguments

The aboriginal rights arguments in Agua Caliente centered on federal statutes enacted in the wake of California joining the United States. In 1848, Mexico ceded land that would become the State of California to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Shortly thereafter, in 1850, California was admitted to the Union and became a state. And just one year later, the U.S. Congress passed the Act of 1851, which sought to protect the property rights of former Mexican citizens and to settle land claims in California. The Act required those claiming property rights to file their claims within two years.

Coachella argued that the 1851 Act required all claims to land to be submitted, and that the Agua Caliente’s failure to submit a claim within the two-year period set forth in the Act meant that any claims to the land were extinguished in 1853. Likewise, Coachella argued that the record lacked sufficient factual support for Agua Caliente’s aboriginal groundwater rights claim. In particular, Coachella emphasized the lack of evidence that Agua Caliente reservations had any wells in use, but rather that they only used surface water.

Agua Caliente countered that the 1851 Act did not extinguish their aboriginal rights. Agua Caliente did not dispute that they failed to file a claim in the two-year window of the Act. Instead, they argued that the Act, which on its terms pertained to “each and every person claiming lands in California by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish or Mexican government,” Plaintiff’s Brief at 20 (citing An Act to Ascertain and Settle the Private Land Claims in the State of California, 9 Stat. 631 (March 3, 1851)), did not apply to them because their claim to land did not stem from the Spanish or Mexican government. Rather, they claimed aboriginal rights based on use and occupation since time immemorial, and did not rely upon title derived from the Spanish or Mexican government. To buttress this argument, Agua Caliente also pointed to an 1853 Act passed by the U.S. Congress to transfer California lands in which the United States retained a proprietary interest to the United States. Because this 1853 Act included an exception for “land in the occupation or possession of any Indian tribe,” the Tribe argued that this provision explicitly recognized as valid the kind of aboriginal title that they asserted. In making this argument, Agua Caliente also attempted to distinguish a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases finding aboriginal rights to be extinguished by the Act of 1851. It did so on the ground that those U.S. Supreme Court cases addressed “Indian land rights that fell within the purview of the 1851 Act,” but that Agua Caliente’s land rights did not fall within the purview of the 1851 Act.

Likewise, because an 1850 law passed by the U.S. Congress created a treaty commission for the purpose of clearing aboriginal title claims of non-missionized Indians, Agua Caliente argued that they did not fall within the scope of the Act of 1851. The Act of 1851, their argument went, did not apply to Indians outside the zone of missionization because the 1850 Act covered their claims. Agua Caliente also noted that they had negotiated a treaty with the United States in 1852 that set aside a reservation, but that they were not notified of the U.S. Senate’s failure to ratify the treaty for some time.

Finally, Agua Caliente argued that even if their aboriginal land rights had been extinguished by the 1851 Act, they subsequently reestablished title by continuing their exclusive use and occupancy of the land and water on their ancestral lands.

ii. The Court’s Ruling

The court’s ruling on summary judgment granted the Agua Caliente federal reserved rights to groundwater, but denied the claim for aboriginal groundwater rights. It rejected both of Agua Caliente’s aboriginal rights arguments, finding that the Tribe’s failure to file a claim in accordance with the Act of 1851 extinguished any aboriginal water rights. Moreover, the court held that even if the 1851 Act did not extinguish these aboriginal rights, the establishment of a reservation in 1876 “effectively re-extinguished that right.” Agua Caliente at 13.

Although the court did not explicitly address Coachella’s argument that no factual support demonstrated groundwater use in the relevant time period, the court did note that aboriginal rights to groundwater are not founded upon use of groundwater itself, but rather derive from a right to occupancy. See Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, Case No. EDCV 13-883-JGB, 2015 WL 1600065 (E.D. Cal., Mar. 20, 2015) at 13 fn. 12 (“[N]o such freestanding aboriginal rights exists, all derive from a right to occupancy.”). Accordingly, proof of actual groundwater use was not necessary.

The court’s decision to deny aboriginal rights to Agua Caliente relies fairly heavily on U.S. Supreme Court precedent regarding the Act of 1851. Although the argument that an aboriginal right does not stem from Spanish or Mexican authority and that property rights not stemming from Spanish or Mexican authority are not covered by this Act appears persuasive on its face, past U.S. Supreme Court decisions have interpreted the Act of 1851 as requiring tribes claiming aboriginal land rights to have filed a claim pursuant to the Act to preserve their occupancy rights. The main case finding otherwise, Cramer v. United States, 261 U.S. 219 (1923), upon which Agua Caliente relied heavily, contains some language favorable for the Tribe. See, e.g., id. at 231 (“The Indians here concerned . . . and their claims were in no way derived from the Spanish or Mexican governments.”). Nevertheless, while the U.S. Supreme Court has not affirmatively stated that all aboriginal land claims in California fall within the ambit of the Act of 1851, the Ninth Circuit in U.S. ex rel Chunie v. Ringrose, 788 F.2d 638 (9th Cir. 1986), effectively interpreted the line of U.S. Supreme cases as doing just that. The Chunie court distinguished Cramer on the ground that the tribe in that case did not occupy the land in question at the time of the Act of 1851. Interestingly, the Eastern District did not address Agua Caliente’s argument about the 1850 treaty commission, so the court’s exact perception of that argument remains unclear. Nevertheless, the Eastern District did not find it persuasive enough to rule in the Tribe’s favor on the aboriginal water rights claim.

The Eastern District’s assertion that the creation of a reservation for the Tribe in 1876 reservation extinguished aboriginal rights, however, appears inconsistent with prior case law on aboriginal water rights. As put forward in Winans, reservations are not a reservation of rights to tribes, but rather a reservation of rights from them—a reservation of those not granted. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit in Adair, 723 F. 2d at 1414, noted, concerning the aboriginal water rights it found to exist for the Klamath Tribe, “[t]he rights were not created by the 1864 Treaty, rather, the treaty confirmed the continued existence of these rights.” The Eastern District here, citing Hagen v. Utah, 510 U.S. 399, 412 (1994) instead explained that reservation means “the United States withdraws land which it then ‘set[s] apart for public uses.’” The Eastern District used this statement to support the assertion that “an aboriginal right of occupancy is fundamentally incompatible with federal ownership.”  Agua Caliente at 13. This assertion, of unclear origin or legal underpinning, contradicts Adair, which recognized a continued aboriginal right of occupancy on a federal reservation. Adair, 723 F. 2d at 1414.

Conclusion

First, in our estimation, the Eastern District should have refrained from foraying into the counterfactual that the Tribe might have reclaimed its aboriginal title between the Act of 1851 and the 1876 establishment of its reservation. Alternatively, just as the Ninth Circuit did in Adair, the court could have conducted a robust interpretation of the executive order that established the reservation in 1876 to determine whether or not it reserved any remaining aboriginal rights. We feel that it is a legal error to conclude that a reservation automatically extinguishes any aboriginal rights that may exist without even examining the text of the order establishing the reservation. However, because the Tribe has elected not to appeal the aboriginal rights portion of this ruling, the order and its flawed reasoning will remain on the books.

Case law surrounding the presence of aboriginal water rights remains murky. Although Agua Caliente ultimately prevailed on their reserved water rights claim in this case, recognition of aboriginal rights can be crucial to tribes, primarily when 1) a federal reserved rights claim is not available; or 2) the priority date guaranteed by a reserved right is not early enough to preserve a tribe’s access to water. Given the lack of clarity in aboriginal water rights, erroneous decisions in this arena are not surprising. Appellate courts should work to make the law here more clear when the opportunity to do so arises to provide better guidance to lower courts attempting to make sense of the confusing state of the doctrine.

Although this piece has focused on the legal underpinnings of aboriginal rights, it is worth acknowledging that, from the perspective of basic fairness, these legal underpinnings are themselves seriously flawed. During this time period, eighteen tribes in California negotiated treaties with the United States that were never ratified. No one bothered to notify the tribes of this fact. Combined with the Act of 1851, these actions left many California tribes homeless. On top of this, these tribes had to endure state-sanctioned attempts to get rid of the Indian population. There are some tools within the law, such as aboriginal water rights, that can be used to advance tribal interests, but that does not change this country’s history of using the law itself to subjugate the people who have lived here the longest, a history that is still present in certain strains of modern legal doctrine.

Richard Griffin and Claudia Antonacci, JD Candidates, Stanford Law School, Class of 2017

Image: Warner’s hotsprings and the village of Aqua Caliente, California ca. 1900.  Flickr user Ashley Van Haeften, Creative Commons.

SOURCES:

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

Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963).

United States v. Winans 198 U.S. 371 (1905).

United States v. Adair, 723 F.2d 1394 (9th Cir. 1983).

Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, Case No. EDCV 13-883-JGB, 2015 WL 1600065 (E.D. Cal., Mar. 20, 2015).

An Act to Ascertain and Settle the Private Land Claims in the State of California, 9 Stat. 631 (March 3, 1851).

U.S. ex rel Chunie v. Ringrose, 788 F.2d 638 (9th Cir. 1986).

Agua Caliente Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment on Phase I Issues.

Coachella Valley Water District Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment or in the Alternative, for Partial Summary Judgment.

United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, Who We Are, http://www.bia.gov/WhoWeAre/RegionalOffices/Pacific/WeAre/.


Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a six-part collaborative series between the University of Denver Water Law Review and the Stanford Environmental Law Journal that examines the upcoming Ninth Circuit case, Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District and the development of the doctrine of federal reserved rights to water.

Tribal Participation in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

In 2014, the California Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which implements a comprehensive framework for the regulation of groundwater in California.[1]  SGMA relies on local agency leadership to achieve “sustainable groundwater management,” defined as the management and use of groundwater without an “undesirable result,” such as unreasonable reduction of groundwater storage, degradation of quality, seawater intrusion, or land subsidence.  Under the new law, certain high- and medium-priority basins will be required to adopt sustainable groundwater management plans the end of January 2022, and to attain sustainable groundwater management by 2040.[2]  While SGMA contains several provisions pertaining to tribes, it raises many more questions than it answers about how the new regulations will affect the more than one hundred federally recognized Indian tribes that reside in California.

Much of the uncertainty about SGMA’s impact on tribes and vice versa stems from the fact that federally recognized tribes are sovereign entities that often fall outside of state regulation; tribes have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. federal government.  This means that, with regard to their federal water rights, federal tribes can effectively ignore SGMA if they so choose, which poses potential problems for the state and local sustainability agencies, because sustainably managing an aquifer generally requires managing the total amount of water removed from the aquifer by all users.  If a local sustainability agency cannot control—or doesn’t even know—the amount of groundwater used by a tribe, it will be more difficult for that agency to manage its groundwater basin.  As a result, SGMA seeks to pull federal tribes into local considerations of groundwater management and conservation; it provides that tribes “may voluntarily agree to participate in the preparation or administration of a groundwater sustainability plan” and are “eligible to participate fully in planning, financing, and management.”[3]  Still, the Act does not—and cannot—require that federally recognized tribes participate or in fact do anything at all.

The question of whether to participate in the SGMA process raises complex issues for tribes, and since the first deadlines under SGMA have not yet passed, the tribes appear to be in a “wait and see” mode—they are waiting to see how the process takes shape and plays out before deciding whether to participate.  To date, no tribe has fully begun participating in a local SGMA process of developing a sustainability agency or groundwater plan.  In part, this is likely the result of tribes’ concerns that participating in the SGMA process—a state law to which they are not subject—will impinge on their sovereignty.  Tribes may not want to be forced to report to the state; instead, they wish to preserve their government-to-government relationship at the federal level.  For similar reasons, tribes may be hesitant to share their groundwater data and knowledge about the hydrogeology of any aquifers underlying their reservation.  Moreover, even if tribes are interested in coordinating with local agencies or the state, they may lack institutionalized mechanisms for doing so, because historically many of them have coordinated with federal, rather than state, agencies.  Collaborating with local entities under a state law may be an uncomfortable posture and new procedure for tribes.  Thus, for those tribes who may be interested in participating, establishing a formal relationship between tribes and the state that doesn’t entail the state regulating tribes will be a major challenge moving forward.

But if tribes opt not to participate in the SGMA process, what does that mean for the basins that they overlie?  It could mean future havoc for basin plans if tribes assert federally reserved water rights after the basin plans are established.  SGMA guidance documents have appropriately emphasized how to contact and invite tribes to participate, but they have not named the risks of not including tribal participants.[4]   If a tribe asserts a federally reserved water right after a basin plan has been established, it may render the basin plan ineffective by bringing the total amount of groundwater extracted from the basin above the amount required to achieve “sustainable groundwater management.”

The potential for this situation to arise is the result of the nature of the water rights that federal tribes living on reservations may be able to claim.  Under the Winters doctrine, when Congress reserves land for an Indian reservation, Congress also reserves water rights for the tribes living on the reservation.[5]  Those tribes have a right to the amount of water necessary to fulfill the purposes for which the reservation was created, which can include the amount needed to farm all the “practically irrigable acreage” on the reservation.[6]  That “reserved” water right is a federal right and thus usually paramount to rights later perfected under state law.[7]  As a result, unlike holders of state water rights, tribes with federal water rights need not follow the reasonable and beneficial use doctrines that are part of the California water law regime for both groundwater and surface water rights.  Nor do they lose the water right from non-use—federally reserved water rights are not subject to abandonment, so tribes may come forward and assert a water right at any time—including potentially after a basin plan has been established under SGMA.

The concern that tribes will disrupt existing water allocation regimes by suddenly claiming or exercising their reserved water rights is not new, however.  Historically, tribal claims of federally reserved water rights were made with respect to surface water, which presented complex issues for the appropriative rights systems employed in western states like California because they affected the priority of existing rights.  Whereas priority date under the state system is based on the date when the appropriation was initiated, federally reserved water rights have a priority date that goes back at least as far as the date on which the reservation lands were set aside.[8]  As a result, a tribe claiming a federally reserved right to surface water today could bump down in priority all the rights established after the date on which the reservation was created.

Potential Interactions Between Federally Reserved Groundwater Rights and California’s Groundwater Regime

Similar problems arise in the context of groundwater, which recent case law, including the Eastern District of California’s decision in Agua Caliente, suggests can also be the subject of federally reserved water rights.[9]  California manages state groundwater rights under a water rights system that merges three different types of water rights—overlying, or correlative rights; appropriative rights; and prescriptive rights.[10]  The California Supreme Court first recognized correlative and appropriative rights to groundwater in 1903 in the landmark case Katz v. Walkinshaw.[11]  Under this groundwater rights regime, users whose land lies above an aquifer are vested with overlying rights, which allow groundwater extraction for use on the overlying land subject only to the limitation that the amount extracted is reasonable for use on the overlying parcels compared to the demands of other overlying users.[12]  Appropriative rights are established according to a first-in-time, first-in-right system and relate to groundwater extraction for use on property that does not overlie the aquifer.  These rights are junior to overlying rights—appropriators may only use “surplus” water, or water in excess of what is required by overlying users and that will not result in aquifer overdraft.[13]  Finally, prescriptive rights can be created by the open and adverse continuous use of groundwater in an overdrafted basin for the prescriptive period, which in California is five years.  Thus appropriative rights can shed their junior status as compared to overlying rights if they become prescriptive rights through this process.  How federally reserved rights to groundwater will interact with or fit into this complex state groundwater rights system remains largely an open question.

If the tribe’s land overlies a groundwater source, it may begin pumping under the correlative rights doctrine, making a claim to the correlative right of “reasonable use” under state law.[14]  Under that state law correlative right, if there is insufficient water to meet the demands of all overlying landowners, then each must reduce their use in relation to the other overlying landowners.[15]

If, however, the tribe claimed their groundwater right was a federally reserved right, three potential scenarios could occur.  First, if the date of creation of the tribe’s groundwater right preceded perfection of all other overlying groundwater rights, the tribe’s right would probably be absolute and superior, rather than correlative, to others.[16]  Granting a tribe its entire allotment in this scenario would likely follow the California Supreme Court’s rule for coordinating state surface water appropriative and riparian rights, which provides that appropriative rights supersede subsequent riparian rights and vice versa.[17]  Riparian surface water rights, like overlying groundwater rights, are correlative.[18]  As a result, the tribe’s federally reserved right could effectively preempt the state water rights of other users, thus making sustainable groundwater management more difficult, especially in times of scarcity or if the tribe’s water right is large relative to the total amount of water available in the basin.

In a second scenario, all overlying groundwater rights could predate a tribe’s reserved right.  Under this scenario, because federal reserved rights cannot interfere with prior state water rights,[19] the tribe’s right would likely be satisfied after the overlying rights, similar to a state appropriative groundwater right.

Finally, in a third scenario, the date of the creation of the tribe’s groundwater right could fall between the dates when other overlying groundwater rights in the basin vested.  In this scenario, three potential outcomes exist for coordinating overlying users’ rights with the tribe’s reserved right to groundwater: 1) the tribe’s right might be enjoyed in its entirety, preempting all subsequent overlying users, with all overlying users (including those predating the tribe’s reserved right) sharing in shortage, which means all overlying users reduce use proportionally if there is not enough water to meet their total demand; 2) because some overlying rights precede the tribe’s reserved right, the tribe’s right might be satisfied after all overlying rights; or 3) the tribe’s right might, together with other overlying state groundwater rights holders, reduce use proportionally in times of shortage.  This scenario—where a tribal reserved right is created subsequent to some overlying groundwater rights but before some others—mimics a scenario left unresolved in California surface water law when a surface water appropriative right is both predated by and followed by separate correlative, riparian rights to the same waterbody.  According to the authors of one water law casebook, in this surface water situation, “[i]f you cannot find a solution [to this quandary], do not worry.  Neither can we.  To our knowledge, moreover, no court has ever confronted this Gordian knot in a published opinion.  This issue typically does not arise because title to most private land in California was acquired before rival appropriative water rights were perfected.”[20]  Because tribes like the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, located in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, may hold reserved rights to groundwater with priority dates around the time when overlying groundwater rights first vested—the Agua Caliente’s Winters right to groundwater would date to 1876—this “Gordian knot” might become more common as tribal reserved rights to groundwater are increasingly recognized.[21]

In addition, tribes sometimes pump water from an aquifer and deliver it to lands that do not overlie that aquifer.  Under California groundwater law, this situation would make them state law appropriators.  If the tribe claimed a federal reserved right to groundwater in this distant aquifer, however, their reserved right would probably function like reserved rights to surface water: the tribe’s groundwater right would be fulfilled before appropriators with priority dates after the establishment of their reservation and after appropriators with earlier priority dates.[22]  Meanwhile, a tribal reserved right to groundwater that it uses on lands that do not overlie an aquifer might be fulfilled subsequent to all overlying groundwater rights, like state appropriative rights, or in conjunction with overlying groundwater rights as described above.

These complexities highlight the importance of aboriginal rights to groundwater—tribal reserved rights with priority dates of time immemorial.  Aboriginal groundwater rights with a priority date of time immemorial would almost certainly resolve the legal headaches described above, with tribal rights trumping all state groundwater rights.  Another post in this series discusses the aboriginal rights claim in the Agua Caliente case.

Ultimately, under either the correlative rights or the Winters doctrines, a federally recognized tribe on a reservation overlying an aquifer could claim a right to the groundwater at any time, even if it has not previously been pumping.  With a claim under the state correlative rights system, this would likely pose a fairly manageable problem for groundwater managers, since the tribe’s right would be limited by what is reasonable use in relation to other overlying users.  But an absolute, non-correlative, federally reserved claim to groundwater might frustrate basin plans and the established groundwater rights regime.  This is not to say that tribes are in any way at fault for unsustainable groundwater management in California; in fact, aquifer overdraft throughout the state is largely the result of historic non-enforcement of the groundwater rights regime except through litigation and adjudication in some basins.  Rather, the intersection of tribes’ federally reserved rights to groundwater and the California groundwater regime engenders extreme legal complexities and uncertainty that may have unintended consequences for groundwater management under SGMA.

Further uncertainty for basin managers might arise from questions like: if a reservation both overlies an aquifer and is crossed by surface water, may a tribe decide which water resource to make the subject of its federally reserved right (i.e., whether to claim a federally reserved right in the surface water or the groundwater)?  Can it make a claim to some of both the surface water and the groundwater?  If a reservation overlies two different aquifers, may a tribe claim a federally reserved right in one and a correlative right in the other?  Given that courts have only somewhat recently begun to find federally reserved rights in groundwater, these and many other questions about the interaction between California’s groundwater rights system and federally reserved groundwater rights remain unresolved.  In the end, it is in the interest of state and local agencies to attempt to overcome hurdles like tribes’ concerns about sovereignty in order to coordinate with them on groundwater to ensure that SGMA can be implemented effectively while respecting tribal water rights.

Elizabeth Vissers, J.D. Candidate, Stanford Law School, expected 2017; M.S. Student, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, expected 2017

Mary Rock,  J.D. Candidate, Stanford Law School, expected 2017; M.S. Student, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, expected 2017

Philip Womble, J.D., Stanford Law School, 2016; Ph.D. Candidate, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, expected 2019

Image: Shasta Dam, California.  Wikimedia Commons user Apaliwal, Creative Commons.

[1] 2014 Cal ALS 346, 2014 Cal SB 1168, 2014 Cal Stats. ch. 346 [hereinafter “Sustainable Groundwater Management Act” or “SGMA”].

[2] Philip Womble & Richard Griffin, Two Interactions Between California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the Public Trust Doctrine, Stan. Envtl. L.J. Blog (Apr. 29, 2015, 2:40 PM PST), http://journals.law.stanford.edu/stanford-environmental-law-journal-elj/blog/two-interactions-between-californias-sustainable-groundwater-management-act-and-public-trust#sthash.yaHnd6gB.dpuf.

[3] Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, ch. 346, §10720.3(c).

[4] See Kristin Dobbin, et al., Collaborating for Success: Stakeholder Engagement for Sustainable Groundwater Management Act Implementation (July 2015), http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/gmp/docs/local_asst/sgma_stakeholderengagement_whitepaper.pdf.

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

[6] See Arizona v. California, 530 U.S. 392 (2000).

[7] SGMA recognizes this.  Section 10720.3(d) provides that “federally reserved water rights to groundwater shall be respected in full.  In case of conflict between federal and state law in that adjudication or management, federal law shall prevail.”

[8] Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908); see United States v. Winans, 198 U.S. 371 (1905) (possibly supporting the notion that federally reserved rights could go back as far as time immemorial).

[9]  Cappaert v. United States, 426 U.S. 128 (1976); Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water Dist., No. EDCV 13-883-JGB, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49998 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 20, 2015); see also Stephen V. Quesenberry et al., Tribal Strategies for Protecting And  Preserving Groundwater, 41 Wm. Mitchell L. Rev. 431, 453 & n.97 (2015) (commenting that “many . . . state and federal courts have found reserved rights in groundwater” and listing cases).

[10] Womble & Griffin, supra note 2.

[11] 141 Cal. 116 (1903).

[12] Womble & Griffin, supra note 2.

[13] Id.

[14] Wright v. Goleta Water District, 174 Cal. App. 3d 74 (relegating an unexercised right and making the newest pumper subordinate to others is inappropriate).  Tribes would be considered the same as any other overlying user, and could thus make a claim under state law to the amount of water that is reasonable compared to the demands of other overlying users.

[15] While this has historically not been enforced, the implementation of SGMA will hopefully ensure that it is enforced in the future.

[16] Quesenberry et al., supra note 9, at 456. See also Judith Royster, Winters in the East: Tribal Reserved Rights to Water in Riparian States, 25 Wm. & Mary Envtl. L. & Pol’y Rev. 169, 182 (2000) (stating that “[t]ribal [reserved] water rights are, therefore, paramount over subsequent state-law water rights.”).

[17] Haight v. Costanich, 184 Cal. 426 (1920).

[18] Pleasant Valley Canal Co. v. Borror, 72 Cal. Rptr. 2d 1 (Cal. App. 5th Dist. 1998).

[19] Royster, supra note 16, at 182.

[20] Barton H. Thompson et al., Legal Control of Water Resources 209 (5th ed. 2013).

[21] Like riparian surface water rights, overlying rights to groundwater would vest when a current landowner’s predecessor in interest originally received a land patent from the U.S. government. Many of these rights would date to the mid-19th century.  See Lux v. Haggin, 10 P.674, 725 (Cal. 1886).  Any reserved groundwater rights held by California Indian Rancherias that were created in 20th century would be accordingly be junior to most, if not all, overlying groundwater rights in this scenario.

[22] Royster, supra note 16, at 182.