- Historic Sites
“here In Nevada A Terrible Crime …”
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
Altogether, the water diverted from the Truckee to the project serves about 1,025 farms on which dwell approximately 5,800 people. The farmers produce mainly alfalfa and hay for cattle; some barley, wheat, and other grains; corn silage; and a small amount of vegetables and fruits, including potatoes and melons. In the winter thousands of cattle and sheep are brought in from the ranges to be fattened for market. In addition, some farmers maintain dairy herds, raise turkeys and other poultry, and keep bees. Most of the people, typically industrious, middle-income farm families, live on the lands of the project, but many who own uneconomic one- and two-acre lots with water rights lease their land to bigger operators and live in Fallen. The latter, with a population close to three thousand, is the principal shopping and marketing town on the project and, except for a garish gambling casino, might, with its wide streets and easy, friendly pace, pass for any county seat in the agricultural West.
The average gross crop value of the Newlands Project amounts to no more than $4,500,000 per year, and from 1909 until 1965 the value of all crops produced during those fifty-six years totalled only $104,500,000. These figures assume significance when matched as achievements of “progress” against what is being denied to the Indians. If the decline of the lake were halted and recreational facilities built on its shores, for instance, it is estimated that recreational income at the lake would soon exceed the annual crop value of the irrigation project and that within fifteen years this income would increase to more than three times the annual value of the project.
Most people on the project are not unsympathetic to the plight of Pyramid Lake, but they argue bitterly that they and their families have long since acquired legal rights to the water, and it is just too bad if there is not enough in the Truckee for the lake as well. One of the largest landowners on the project, Carl F. Dodge, a Nevada state senator whose 1,400 acres have been owned by his family for fifty years, reflects the attitude of many. If the water is more valuable for the purpose of keeping Pyramid Lake alive than for keeping the project’s farms fertile, Dodge said, “then let them buy the water rights and take them over. All I can say about it is if they feel that way, money talks.”
No one, as yet anyhow, believes that such a course is economically or, in Nevada, politically practicable. Ranchers and farmers form a powerful element in the state’s political life, and with few areas in Nevada able to support agriculture, it is a safe bet that the state would vigorously resist permitting one of its biggest and richest agricultural districts to return to desert. Moreover, the farms are no longer the only users of the project’s water. Through the years, “tailwater” draining off the farms built up previously existing marshes in the adjoining desert. Like Pyramid Lake, these became the habitat of large flocks of ducks and other waterfowl and attracted gun clubs. At the same time, other waste water created a partly irrigated pasture, which farmers of the project put to use as a common grazing ground. In 1948 the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service made a pact with the irrigators on the Newlands Project and Nevada’s Fish and Game Commission. Out of the waterfowl marshlands were created the Stillwater Wildlife Management area (a public shooting ground) and the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge (a protected area), and the Interior Department also agreed to develop and improve the pasture. Once established, both the wildlife area and the pasture became recognized “users” of Truckee water. The effect up to now, therefore, has been to provide water for Stillwater ducks and project cows, while continuing to deny it to the Indians and Pyramid Lake. And in still another development a large storage reservoir built on the project has begun to thrive as a recreational center. The very water diverted away from the Indians’ lake is now being used by whites for recreation on an artificial lake less than thirty-five miles away.
All of this must be reckoned with by the Indians in their late-hour attempt to save Pyramid Lake, and it is further complicated by non-Indian users of water upstream from the lake on both the Truckee and the Carson. The number of these users, including other farmers as well as domestic and industrial interests around Reno, has increased greatly since 1905, and not surprisingly their competitive claims to the limited supply of water have grown more complex. But the Paiutes’ determined fight is beginning to loom as an ominous threat to all non-Indian users—capable, perhaps, of unsettling many, if not all, of the established water rights on the two rivers. The result has been to increase white irritation with the Paiutes. Battle lines have been sharply defined, and added pressure has been brought on both the state government and the Bureau of Réclamation by the white farmers and ranchers to see to it that their water rights are safeguarded.