Indian Tribe Battles State Over Water Rights

July 6, 2004

The California Water Resources Control Board is jeopardizing the economic development plans of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians by revoking the tribe's license to tap a small spring in the San Gorgonio Pass, the L.A. Times reported.

The Coachella Valley Water District is backing the board, hoping to redirect the spring water to the cities it serves: La Quinta, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells and part of Cathedral City.

"Water is for fighting," John Husing told the L.A. Times. Husing is a Redlands-based consultant who has worked for the Morongos in the past. This spat "raises all the fundamental issues: water, Indian rights, prosperity and job creation, " he said.

The Morongo Indians have been bottling water from the spring under the popular Arrowhead brand name. Swiss food-producing giant Nestle invensted $26 million in a 383,000-square-foot plant on the reservation for this purpose.

Now the permit rights are being disputed because a routine records check in 1996 revealed that a previous permit holder for the spring had failed to use the water for its legally mandated purpose – irrigating 13 acres of nearby farmland, the L.A. Times reported.

Under state law, if water isn't being used for its permitted purpose, it should automatically go to the Coachella Valley Water District and other parties to a 1938 surface water rights settlement, the water resources board contends.

Lawyers on both sides are fiercely arguing their clients' positions. Nestle and the Morongos are alleging conflict of interest and arguing that thge water board has no authority over the spring, while the Coachella Valley Water District is arguing that the tribe is making money off of water that legally belongs to the district.

Source: L.A. Times