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Drought in California’s Palm Springs Area Draws Attention to Nestlé Plant on Morongo Reservation

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As California’s drought worsens, some residents living near the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in the Coachella Valley west of Palm Springs are directing their ire at the tribe for its leasing of land to a Nestlé plant.

The plant draws water from the tribe’s springs in Millard Canyon. As water woes increase in a desert region where all aquifers are declining, tensions are rising among some residents who live near the reservation. They question the Morongo Nation’s right to sell water to Nestlé Waters North America.

"Why is it possible to take water from a drought area, bottle it and sell it?" asked Linda Ivey, a real estate appraiser from the nearby city of Palm Desert, in a story that appeared in the Desert Sun on July 15. "We've got to protect what little water supply we have."

It’s important to note that the Coachella Valley maintains 124 golf courses, one of the largest concentrations of courses in the nation, according to the Desert Sunitself. And homes in nearby Palm Springs use twice the amount of water as the average home, Agence France-Presse reported in 2012.

Indeed, the amount of water coming out of Millard Canyon is relatively small when considered alongside various other canyons and the San Gorgonio River, U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Allen Christensen told the Desert Sun. For that reason, he said, the bottling plant's impact on the area's water supplies is probably relatively small.

Jeff Davis, general manager of the San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency, said that water scarcity will generate water conflicts.

"It's literally peanuts. It's a drop in the ocean," Davis told the Desert Sun. "You're talking about such a small amount of water that it's kind of ridiculous to fight over that. But people will fight over water no matter what.”

The Morongo Band said its demonstrated environmental stewardship and water conservation measures speak for themselves.

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“The Morongo Band of Mission Indians has a long history of environmental stewardship, which includes water conservation programs on our reservation and in our business enterprises,” Morongo Nation spokesperson Michael Fisher told Indian Country Today Media Network via e-mail. “These include recharge programs and strict monitoring of tribal water resources.”

Their plant has been drawing water from the reservation for over a decade, ever since the Cabazon Water District sold its spring water rights to the Morongo Nation for $3 million in the early 2000s, the Desert Sun reported. The sale ended the spring’s use as part of the local drinking water supply granted through a tribal easement, and became drinking water for the bottled Arrowhead brand.

“Our successful partnership with Nestlé Waters North America provides over 250 local jobs through the efficient operation of a sustainable water-bottling plant that provides water for its highest and best use—human consumption,” Fisher said.

Critics are targeting Nestlé for the most part, for promoting the use of plastic bottles; for bottling water from a desert location; and for trying to privatize water sources, as well as for the company CEO’s putting down a declaration that would have declared water a universal right.

The Desert Sun story, “Little Oversight as Nestlé Taps Morongo Reservation Water,” has brought national attention to this issue, raising the importance of including a precise description of what tribal sovereignty is, as well as explaining why it exists, rather than implying that it is an evasion tactic used by the Morongo Indians.

RELATED: Drought Is No Excuse to Diss Tribal Government, 'Desert Sun'

An email to the reporter asking to discuss descriptions of tribal sovereignty resulted instead in a statement from the paper’s executive editor, published before this story was put to bed. At the very least, reporting the reason for the Morongo’s sovereignty rather than just describing the tribe as sovereign would have answered thorny questions posed in the story:

In return for giving up almost all the land in the U.S., tribes agreed to treaties upheld and preserved by the U.S. government that promise to respect tribal rights over reserved land, and to recognize that tribes govern those lands.