July 28, 2023 — The following article by Jeniffer Solis was issued under the Creative Commons license from the Nevada Current on July 25. The above image was also furnished by the Nevada Current.
For nearly two decades the federal government mismanaged tribal water rights and failed to preserve enough water to protect two threatened and endangered fish in Pyramid Lake, alleges the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in a federal lawsuit.
Despite federal protections and efforts by the tribe to protect important habitat, the culturally significant cui-ui and Lahontan cutthroat trout in Pyramid Lake have continued to decline in the last decade, according to federal wildlife managers.
Pyramid Lake and the lower 20 miles of the Truckee River are located within the boundaries of the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation.
In a lawsuit filed earlier this month in the US District Court for the District of Nevada, the tribe claims the Interior Department “entirely failed” to fulfill their obligations to the tribe to manage certain excess water for the conservation and recovery of the cui-ui and Lahontan cutthroat trout under a 1990 settlement deal with the tribe.
From 2002 until 2019, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service used excess water meant for Pyramid Lake to stabilize the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, an important wetland for migratory birds, located about 80 miles east of Reno, says the tribe.
While those water diversions to the wildlife refuge were awarded on a temporary annual basis, since 2019 the federal government has sought to permanently transfer those water rights to the wildlife refuge, despite a settlement guaranteeing the water for the benefit of Pyramid Lake and tribal efforts to recover cui-ui and Lahontan cutthroat trout populations.
Federal wildlife managers first pushed for a permanent transfer of the water rights to the wildlife refuge in 2019, which the tribe successfully opposed. The federal government made a second attempt at a permanent transfer of the water rights to the wildlife refuge in 2022 without notifying the tribe, according to the lawsuit. That application is still pending before the Nevada state engineer, the top water authority in the state.
Pyramid Lake Paiute leaders are now asking the court to find the permanent water rights transfer unlawful and force the federal government to withdraw their application for a permanent water rights transfer. The tribe is also asking for a court order requiring the Interior Department to send certain excess water to Pyramid Lake going forward.
The federal government’s “inaction comes at a significant cost to Pyramid Lake and its fishery” wrote attorneys for the tribe in the lawsuit.
Both the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and FWS declined to comment, citing active litigation.
The lawsuit is the tribe’s latest attempt to secure water for Pyramid Lake, a terminal lake whose only major source of water is inflow from the Truckee River.
Traditionally both, the Lahontan cutthroat trout and cui-ui sucker are important to the culture of the Paiute people. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe refer to themselves are the “Kooyooe Tukadu” in their native language, or “people who eat cui-ui.”
A century ago, swarms of Pyramid Lake fish would swim far up the Truckee River to safely lay their eggs in the pebbly bottoms of the freshwater river. But a badly planned diversion dam on the river blocked the trout from their native spawning grounds.
The Derby Dam was completed in 1905, and diverted half of all Truckee River water to agricultural fields near Fallon, greatly destabilizing the lake. By 1967, Pyramid Lake dropped by an estimated 80 feet.
After a long struggle and numerous court actions, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe was able to use the Endangered Species Act as a powerful legal lever to secure enough water to keep the lake and its two native fish alive.
In a major step to end the constant fighting among the major players on the Truckee River, Sen. Harry Reid brokered a 1990 settlement titled, the Truckee-Carson-Pyramid Lake Water Rights Settlement Act. The agreement set the stage for dramatic changes, including tighter controls on Northern Nevada irrigation water and restoration of wetlands.
The act also required the Fallon Naval Air Station to meaningfully reduce water use in order to reduce water diversion from the Truckee River for the conservation and recovery of cui-ui and Lahontan cutthroat trout.
“If used for the primary purpose required by the Settlement Act, the Navy Water could represent up to approximately 5,000 acre-feet of water per year flowing into Pyramid Lake,” the lawsuit said.
The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has a recent history of successfully securing water for Pyramid Lake through litigation.
The tribe reached an agreement in 2015 to acquire up to 2,750 acre-feet of water from a Nevada water utility. Two years later, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the tribe was entitled to 8,300 acre-feet of water that was diverted from the Truckee River by a Nevada irrigation district decades ago.
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