Tribe's water protests threaten development in the Carson Basin

If the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe continues to protest water transfers in the Carson Valley and litigation follows, development involving water transfers along the Carson River upstream from Lahontan Reservoir could stop, says the general manager of the Carson Water Subconservancy District.

The affected areas would include parts of Douglas and Lyon counties in Nevada, Alpine County in California, and Carson City.

In protests to the State Engineer, the tribe claims transfers reduce flows into Lahontan

Reservoir, 18 miles west of Fallon. The requirement to keep Lahontan Reservoir full, in turn, requires more diversions from the Truckee River, which feeds Pyramid Lake.

And diversions from the Truckee, the tribe says, threaten water quality and endangered species at Pyramid Lake.

Starting this summer, the tribe has protested every transfer application, no matter how small, in the Carson River basin.

"This is complicating transfers and potentially creating a huge economic impact on the upper watershed because everything would stop. They (the tribe) are jumping to conclusions before the facts are in," said Edwin D. James, general manager of the Carson Water Subconservancy District.

The tribe has protested at least 13 water transfers so far.

The Carson Water Subconservancy District believes a study of the entire watershed both surface water and groundwater is needed.

James said district officials believe, for instance, that some water rights that currently aren't used boost the amount of water available for new developments.

The study, James said, would tell the area how much water is available in the basin and would provide a relatively easy way to decide if a proposed project would adversely affect another water right user in the watershed.

However, the studies are complicated and time-consuming.

The tribe's lawyer, Don Springmeyer of Las Vegas-based Robert C. Maddow & Associates, said the tribe is not interested in waiting for a study. Delays, he said, risk potential damage to Pyramid Lake and its wildlife.

Springmeyer said the tribe believes that the water transfers allow people to pump more water than the amount that returns underground from rainfall and snow each year.

Over time, he said, the reduced flow in the Carson River will harm the rights of water right holders in the Newlands Project, an area of farmland irrigated from the Lahontan Reservoir. Ordinarily, the reservoir is filled from the Carson River, but in dry years water is diverted out of the Truckee River. The Newlands Project has the right to take water from the Truckee River.

Springmeyer said hearings on water rights protests can take months or years. After a hearing, either party can appeal the ruling to the courts for litigation that can be highly complex.

The tribe's protests of even the smallest water transfers, James says, have elevated water to a major concern for all new development proposals.

The tribe's first protest this summer, involving less than 2 acre-feet of water rights, failed because it was not made in a timely manner.

However, its challenge of a transfer of 4.4 acre-feet of water rights in Minden to a private builder in Douglas County still is pending, as are others filed in Douglas and Lyon counties. No date has been set for hearings.

Springmeyer said the tribe is protesting applications for even small transfers because of their cumulative effect.

"If you don't do each one, it's an acre-foot here and an acre-foot there and pretty soon you're talking about real water, with apologies to Senator Dirksen." (U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen is credited with the quip, "A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money.")

"If the tribe can prove its claim, then the federal water master will have to stop the transfer," James said. The federal water master administers the federal decrees on the Carson and Truckee Rivers.


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