(CN) – The district court must decide if Nevada’s chief engineer violated the water rights of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian tribe by over-allocating groundwater that might have diminished the tribe’s water supply, the 9th Circuit ruled.
By decree, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indians have owned water rights to the Truckee River, the principle source of water for Pyramid Lake, for more than 100 years.
In 1844, Pyramid Lake was 50 miles long and 12 miles wide. It has since diminished to about 20,000 acres.
Between 1998 and 2003, several entities applied for new groundwater allocations in the Tracy Segment Hydrological Basin, which includes a portion of the Truckee River and boarders the Paiute Reservation.
The Nevada State Engineer granted the majority of the applications despite protests from the tribe and the county.
If the U.S. Geographical Survey’s estimate of “6,000 acre-feet perennial yield is accurate, groundwater in the Basin was thus already over-allocated” when the applications were granted, the opinion says. Nevertheless, the engineer concluded that granting the additional allocations would not result in over-allocation.
The district court dismissed the tribe’s appeal of the decision because it agreed with the engineer that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction.
The three-judge, San Francisco-based panel disagreed, ruling that “if the Tribe’s allegations are true, the groundwater taken from the Basin pursuant to the Engineer’s groundwater allocations will adversely affect the Tribe’s decreed water rights.”
“The Orr Ditch Decree forbids groundwater allocations that adversely affect the Tribe’s decreed water rights to water flows in the river,” Judge William Fletcher wrote.