“here In Nevada A Terrible Crime …”


All the Department of the Interior could do for Pyramid Lake, the task force noted, was to undertake certain measures—including the salvaging of excess water, the elimination of waste, and the imposition of regulations and controls at the Newlands Project—that would increase the amount of water available to the lake. The carrying-out of the recommendations would guarantee a considerable increase of water to the lake, Udall told the Indians, and with that promise they withdrew their opposition to the Washoe Project. On November 3, 1964, the voters in the affected Nevada river basins approved it.

The government did make efforts to conserve Truckee River water by setting up certain controls on the Newlands Project, but it soon became questionable whether the Indians would benefit. Despite the Paiutes’ appeals for a statement of a legal basis for the water Udall had promised them, the Department of the Interior refused to assert that the United States owned, controlled, and had the right to deliver to Pyramid Lake the water it was going to save on the Newlands Project, thus leaving that water open to appropriation by non-Indian users.

In 1968 the threat surfaced with a vengeance. Since 1955 California and Nevada had been working on a settlement that would divide between the two states the waters flowing from Lake Tahoe. All the water in question (including the Truckee and Carson) passed through California before entering Nevada, so California, too, had a claim to it. After thirteen years of work, a document was drafted that not only limited the Indians’ water to what the Orr Ditch decree gave them in 1944, but went beyond that by expressly preventing the federal government and the Indians from ever going to court to seek more water for Pyramid Lake . Henceforth, the Indians would have to apply to Nevada for any water saved by the Newlands Project, and the threat of the Winters’ Doctrine would disappear.

The compact was too raw even for the Department of the Interior, which did not care to turn over the fate of federal water rights in Nevada to the state. The department registered its objections, with the implied threat that Congress would not ratify the agreement. But the Nevada legislature took up the document all the same, and after brief hearings approved the compact. In California it was a different story. Unwilling to risk rejection by Congress, and appealed to by the Northern Paiute Indians, the National Congress of American Indians, and many Indian and white friends, the California Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and Conservation refused to approve the compact unless it was rewritten to preserve Pyramid Lake and eliminate objections of the Department of the Interior.

The state of Nevada refused to change its mind, and on July 6, last summer, the new Secretary of the Interior, Walter J. Hickel, met at Lake Tahoe with governors Ronald Reagan of California and Paul Laxalt of Nevada to try to break the deadlock. Their solution, announced to the press after a ninety-minute meeting on the lake in the cabin of a cruiser owned by Reno gambler William Harrah, made matters worse. Without consulting the Indians, they had agreed that engineers should hasten Pyramid Lake’s gradual decline by draining it down to the level at which it would stabilize.

As Vine Deloria, Jr., Indian author of Custer Died for Your Sins and a former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, put it: “It was the same logic used by the Army to destroy a Vietnamese village—‘We had to destroy the village to save it.’ It naturally followed that the only way to save Pyramid Lake was to drain it.”

The weird proposal, which would have dropped the lake abruptly by 152 feet and left it a salt lake in a huge basin of mudflats, outraged not only the Paiutes, who could not believe that the three governments would commit such a flagrant robbery of their property, but large numbers of non-Indians in Nevada, who suddenly saw Pyramid Lake as a priceless gem of the desert and an important recreation asset for the whole state. The public outcry forced the three officials to drop the plan hurriedly and set up, instead, another task force of federal and state appointees who would try to satisfy the Indians so a new version of the compact could be written. Even that task force got off to a controversial start, however, when Governor Laxalt claimed the right to name the Paiute representative to the body, which the Indians asserted was dominated, anyhow, by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Since that time the Indians’ position has worsened. The Paiutes have continued to ask the federal government to live up to its responsibility and go to court in their behalf, but the Department of the Interior has ignored their pleas. Instead, it has indicated a determination to complete its Washoe Project dams on the upper Truckee and Carson rivers before an Indian suit, based on the Winters’ Doctrine, can halt them. With the project’s completion, Pyramid Lake’s doom will be sealed, since most of the impounded water—including floodwater that the lake has been receiving up to now—will go to the Newlands irrigators and other non-Indian users. A government-initiated suit for the Indians would be even more unlikely at that time than now, and the lake’s future would be decided by the task force. The shape of that decision is already clear: “Obviously,” said a Bureau of Reclamation official about the Indians’ rights, “there must be some compromises.” The lake will still go down.