“here In Nevada A Terrible Crime …”


On the Truckee those rights were firmly established in 1944 by a federal district court decision known as the Orr Water Ditch Company decree. The Department of the Interior did represent the Paiutes at that time but actually worsened the Indians’ position by permitting what amounted to the legalization of Pyramid Lake’s destruction. The Winters’ Doctrine (the 1908 Supreme Court decision) had been in existence for nearly forty years; the department clearly had the opportunity to right an old wrong by insisting on a court grant of adequate water for the lake. But the department asked for no water right at all for the lake, and it got none. The decree gave the Indians a right to only a meager amount of water, but with the provision that it could be used only for irrigation or stock and domestic purposes. (The department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to turn the Paiutes into farmers.) Moreover, the amount of water which they could draw was based on how much land they had under irrigation, and since to this day they have been able to irrigate only a strip along the bottomlands, they have never had the legal right to draw more than a fifth of the water granted to them—and none of it, legally, could be used for Pyramid Lake!

In actuality, Pyramid Lake continued to receive water from springs and underground sources below Derby Darn, from leaks in the dam and the first section of the project’s canal, and particularly from floodwater which the Newlands Project could not use and which was released from the dam to the lower Truckee. Under the Orr Ditch decree, however, the Indians had no right even to the floodwater, and so in 1955, when the Bureau of Reclamation announced plans to build flood-control dams on the headwaters of the Truckee and Carson rivers, it stated specifically that none of the project’s water would be made available to the Indians. This was too much for the Paiutes. On their own, they took their case to the Interior and Insular Affairs committees of both the House and Senate, which were then considering the Washoe Project, of which the new flood-control dams were a part. Both committees responded with reports that noted officially for the first time that Pyramid Lake’s crisis was due largely to acts of the federal government, and that the government had never undertaken compensatory measures to maintain the fishery of the lake and now ought to do so. When the bill authorizing the project passed Congress on August 1, 1956, it directed that facilities be provided to increase water releases to Pyramid Lake to restore its fishery.

By 1963, however, when the Bureau of Reclamation finally firmed up its plans for the project, it revealed, on the contrary, that the new dams would cause the lake to go down even faster. In April, 1964, responding to protests by the Paiutes, then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall appointed a task force to examine the claims of everyone, including the Indians. A preliminary report, completed in September, indicated concern over how to increase, rather than decrease, the water going to Pyramid Lake. It proposed certain modifications in the Washoe plan and economies by the Newlands Project. But it recommended no specified grant of water to the lake, nor did it guarantee that the lake would not suffer from the Washoe Project. It said only that the government should exercise “every effort to maintain the greatest practicable flow of water into Pyramid Lake.”

When public hearings on the report were held in Reno, the Paiutes and various Indian and white supporters argued angrily against the omission of a guaranteed grant of water for the lake.

“Why tell us you will give us as much water as possible?” demanded Avery Winnemucca, a spokesman for the Paiutes. “Why don’t you be specific? At least you did that with others. You’ve got figures to prove that there is so much allocation for this and so much for that, all in figures. But Pyramid Lake, no. You give us as much as possible.”

Other pro-lake, pro-Indian speakers went further, claiming that any discussion of the Washoe Project was premature until the government, under the Winters’Doctrine, took steps to guarantee the lake’s preservation. “Here in Nevada a terrible crime has been committed against Nevada’s first citizens,” charged the Reverend H. Clyde Mathews, chairman of the Nevada Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Then he added what few others in Nevada had previously admitted openly:

If this property had been owned by six hundred white stockholders in an irrigation company, would this property have been taken without compensation, or at all? … The United States government itself has been discriminatory on the basis of race, creed, and national origin in the manner in which the Nevada Indians’ water and fishery rights have been allowed to be denied, ignored, manipulated, and in effect destroyed.

Despite such pleas, the task force’s final report refused to recommend that the government go to court to seek a water grant for the lake. There was no time for a long, complex water-rights case. A water-users’ vote on the Washoe Project was waiting. Moreover, this was a classic illustration of how American Indians have suffered from having their affairs handled by the Department of the Interior. The department chose the course of action that avoided an internal conflict of mammoth proportions: the successful prosecution of the Indians’ case would have endangered not only the Newlands Project but other reclamation projects that Indian tribes elsewhere might claim had overridden their rights.