- Historic Sites
“here In Nevada A Terrible Crime …”
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
In 1905, however, the Reclamation Service of the Department of the Interior built Derby Dam across the Truckee twenty miles east of Reno, diverting part of the river away from Pyramid Lake and into a government irrigation project in the Nevada desert around present-day Fallen (see map, page 96). Since then, for sixty-five years, Pyramid Lake has received only that water which Derby Dam did not divert for the irrigation project (known now as the Newlands Project, for Nevada’s reclamation-minded Senator Francis G. Newlands).
The results at the lake have been as dramatic as they were predictable. The great sheet of water has dropped an average of one and a fourth feet a year for a total so far of more than eighty feet. Its shoreline recedes an average of ten feet a year; a sister body of water, Lake Winnemucca, once also about thirty miles long and fed by overflow water from Pyramid Lake, has entirely dried up and disappeared. Pyramid Lake’s length has shrunk by several miles, and its surface area has contracted by more than fifty square miles. Frémont’s pyramid, now rising 365 feet above the lake, is no longer an island but is connected to the shore; and Anaho Island, facing the same prospect, will surely lose its famed pelicans, once coyotes and other predators can cross on dry land to the rookeries.
At the south end of the lake sandbars almost clog the mouth of the Truckee, so that fish can no longer get up the river to spawn. As a result, the unique giant Lahontan cutthroats described by Frémont—once so numerous that Pyramid was world-famous as a fishery, containing probably the biggest concentration of large fish of any body of water on the continent —disappeared from the lake about 1938. Another fish, known as the cui-ui (pronounced kwee-wee ) and also found nowhere else on earth, is still abundant in the lake. A valuable food fish, growing up to nine pounds, it too now faces extinction.
The lake may never vanish altogether; someday it will have shrunk small enough, probably to about 70 per cent of its present size, that the inflow can equal the decreased evaporation and stabilize the lake’s level. But by then, some hydrologists maintain, the water will be too saline for fish, and Pyramid will be a dead salt lake, or so close to it that its preservation, even at that level, will no longer be worthwhile. The Bureau of Reclamation, which still must see that Truckee River water is diverted to the irrigation project that it built, does not admit to this ultimate prospect but suggests only that as Pyramid Lake’s level declines and its salinity increases, “there will be some change in the fishery.”
All those facts, however, dismal as they may be to those who would save a great natural wonder from destruction, do not, unfortunately, give an inkling of the full—and truly searing—dimensions of what is involved.
“This is one of the blackest pages in the history of American fisheries and represents what must be close to the ultimate in greed and lack of foresight, ” said Thomas J. Trelease, an official of the Nevada Fish and Game Commission, in 1967. It is “a grim, humiliating sermon in selfishness on one hand and public apathy on the other.”
What he was underscoring was the fact that the lake just happens to belong to a small and impoverished tribe of American Indians—some nine hundred members of the Pyramid Lake tribe of Northern Paiutes, descendants of the people who welcomed Frémont in 1844. As Frémont noted, they were people who lived principally on fish, and in 1859 the federal government set aside the lake for them as the main part of an otherwise barren reservation, with the intent that it serve as their major means of existence. Through the years federal courts confirmed the lake as the Indians’ property, and the tribe kept it unspoiled. When the government in 1905 began to divert water from the lake, therefore, it not only took from the Indians something that was legally theirs, but threw into jeopardy the Paiutes’ very livelihood.
No one in 1905 appears to have considered what would happen to the reservation or to the people who lived on it, once their water was taken from them. No one consulted the Indians or asked them for the water—despite the fact that with first-priority water rights, going back to 1859, they could have claimed adequate water for the lake. No one even told them that the water was going to be taken. In plain words, the water was stolen from them in an all-too-common repetition of a fate suffered by other tribes in the arid West.
Ironically, moreover, the action on the Truckee River in 1905 was carried out by the same agency of the federal government charged by law to protect the Indians’ rights and property, the Department of the Interior. Voiceless and powerless in a white man’s world, the Paiutes were in every sense of the word wards of the government. But when Nevada’s political leaders asked Congress to authorize the irrigation project, the Department of the Interior raised not a murmur in defense of the Indians’ water. In a conflict between the interests of the Indians and those of the white farmers who were “opening up” the West, the department’s solicitors turned their backs on the “vanishing race.”