Policy ForumWater

Indigenous communities, groundwater opportunities

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Science  03 Aug 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6401, pp. 453-455
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat6041

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Instead of managing fresh water as one integrated resource, laws frequently treat groundwater separately from more visible, monitored, and managed surface waters. One under-recognized consequence of such legal fragmentation has been uncertainty about whether water rights for indigenous communities, which have been addressed in many countries to varying degrees for surface waters, apply to groundwater. In late 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court left standing a lower court ruling endorsing priority groundwater rights for Native American tribes by denying an appeal in Agua Caliente Band v. Coachella Valley Water District (1). This ruling establishes a new standard throughout nine western states within the lower court's jurisdiction and establishes persuasive, although nonbinding, legal precedent for the rest of the United States (1). To evaluate the ruling's broader potential impacts, we present new data cataloging existing Native American water rights and mapping unresolved tribal groundwater claims across the western United States. No court considered such a regional or national quantitative catalog or map. Drawing lessons from past U.S. experience, we then discuss how tribal rights may offer new opportunities to achieve sustainable groundwater management for society at large, with implications beyond the United States.