Judge Bows Out of Western Water Fight

RENO, Nev. (CN) – Federal courts do not have the power to change water allocations in the Walker River Basin, a 4,000-square mile-area shared by Nevada and California, a federal judge ruled.
     U.S. District Judge Robert Jones on May 28 denied two requests to change water allocations in the Walker River Basin’s tributaries and groundwater system.
     The 62-mile-long Walker River drains more than 4,000 square miles of the Great Basin, from southeast of Reno into California’s Sierra Nevadas. Only 25 percent of the Walker basin is in California, but that part of it receives most of the rain and snow that feed the watershed.
     The Walker River Paiute Reservation wants more water to irrigate more land, and the federal government wants to reserve more water for other tribes in the area. Uncle Sam also wants more water for two military bases, the Toiyabe National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management.
     Legal fights over the water have been going on for more than a century.
     A 1936 judicial decree, amended in 1940, established water rights for the Walker River Paiute Reservation and formalized surface water rights elsewhere but did not address groundwater rights, Jones wrote .
     The decree also created the Walker River Commission and the U.S. Board of Water Commissioners to administer the decree.
     The Walker River Irrigation District challenged the allocation requests in 1997, saying the court has jurisdiction only over “correcting or modifying” the decree and does not have the power to grant additional water rights.
     Jones sifted issues of state and federal jurisdiction, and differences between rights to surface water and groundwater.
     He ruled that the decree “prevents the United States … from claiming any additional rights,” and that new claims for additional water first must be made to state authorities, Jones wrote.
     He also ruled that the decree “does not extend to declaring rights to groundwater, but only to surface water.” The court can rule only on whether groundwater pumping “adversely affects decreed rights.”
     “That is the only context under which this court has jurisdiction under the decree to say anything about groundwater pumping: it may enjoin groundwater pumping (or any activity) by anyone anywhere that interferes with rights adjudicated under the decree,” Jones wrote.
     Because there is no current controversy on groundwater pumping, Jones said the court has no jurisdiction to rule on any current or potential groundwater use.
     In a second case , Nevada’s Mineral County asked the court to “adjust the priority of appropriation in the Walker River Basin to Walker Lake.”
     The 50-square-mile Walker Lake is wholly in Nevada. No streams flow out of the natural lake.
     Mineral County, calling it a matter of public trust, asked the court to establish the county’s right to have “minimal levels in Walker Lake,” to recognize that “minimum flows are necessary to maintain Walker Lake” and to order the state to grant a certificate to the county to benefit the lake.
     Jones denied the requests, saying that only the state and members of the public can sue to “vindicate the public trust in the water rights context.”
     Since initial measurements taken in 1882, Walker Lake has lost about half of its surface area and 28 percent of its volume. Those measurements were taken in March 1996 and the West’s long drought has continued to shrink the lake.
     Officials for Mineral County and the Walker Lake Paiute Tribe could not be reached for comment.

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