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Thursday, February 22, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, February 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Tribe Gets Remaining Truckee River Resources

LAS VEGAS (CN) - A century-long legal battle regarding water use rights along the Truckee River system likely is over after a federal judge ordered all remaining resources to be given to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

The Tribe earlier asked that the federal court in Las Vegas, "provide for the enforcement of the permits issued to the Pyramid Tribe by the Federal Water Master"; to approve the Tribe's application to "appropriate all of the remaining unappropriated water of the Truckee River for the Pyramid Lake fishery"; and give the Tribe "up to 477,851 acre feet per year of Truckee River water."

The Tribe also asked the court to declare "that the waters of the Truckee River in Nevada are fully appropriated and closed to new appropriations."

The Tribe says the actions are necessary because the governing 1944 Orr Ditch Decree "directing the manner in which water must be passed through or released from Lake Tahoe and Boca Reservoir to satisfy water rights is not in the public interest and no longer is equitable in light of the substantial changes in legal and factual circumstances."

The 1944 Orr Ditch Decree arose from a 1913 legal action by the federal government seeking determination of who owned water rights along the Truckee River and had rights to store water in Lake Tahoe, according to the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District website. The decree incorporated the 1935 Truckee River Agreement among the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, Washoe County Water Conservation District, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Sierra Pacific Power Company, which now is the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, and other users of Truckee River water.

The 1935 Truckee River Agreement established reduced flow rates at the California-Nevada state line and enabled construction of the Boca Reservoir in Nevada County, Cal., which is overseen by a federal water master, according to the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District.

"As the court has previously recognized, there exists on a river system 'a conflict between pure theory of priority rights and the practical realities of the river system," U.S. District Judge Lloyd George wrote. "'In effect, this conflict is between the priority concept and the well-established principle of western water law that water must be economically, practically and beneficially used, so far as is possible. In this court's view, the waste of water must be avoided, for wasted water benefits no one.'"

"The final decree in this matter embodies just such a modification, adjudging not only ownership and priority of water rights, but further establishing that such rights are subject to an obligation to divert only that amount of water that can be reasonably, economically and beneficially used," the judge said. "Management of a river system both protects vested water rights and furthers the efficient, beneficial use of water."

The Truckee-Carson Irrigation District opposed the Tribe's request.

"Both the Orr Ditch Decree and the Settlement Act contain provisions designed to protect the interests of water rights owners," the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District said. "The Orr Ditch Decree provides that the points of diversion and the place and manner of use may be changed, so long as it is 'without injury to the rights of other persons whose rights are fixed by this decree.' Further, it prohibits anyone 'from ever taking, diverting, using or claiming any of the water so decreed in any manner or at any time so as to in any way interfere with prior rights'" of water use.

The Truckee-Carson Irrigation District also challenged the court's authority to modify the agreement.

"They suggest the Truckee River Agreement remains a legally enforceable contract separate from the Orr Ditch Decree. As such, the terms of the Truckee River Agreement cannot be modified by this court without the consent of all parties to that agreement, and all parties have not consented to the proposed modifications," George wrote. "The arguments are without merit. This court has authority to modify all provisions of the Orr Ditch Decree, including those of the Truckee River Agreement, because the Truckee River Agreement no longer remains a contract separate from the Orr Ditch Decree, but was incorporated into the decree."

The Tribe " submitted extensive evidence establishing both legal and factual changes in the circumstances of the Truckee River system since the entry of the Orr Ditch Decree," the judge said.

"Since the Orr Ditch Decree was entered, additional reservoirs in the Truckee River basin have been constructed and are being used for the management of water on the river system," George wrote. "The beneficial use of water has shifted, and continues to shift, away from agriculture and toward municipal and industrial uses and other uses. The population depending on the water of the Truckee River has increased greatly and will continue to grow, while farmland irrigated with diverted water has decreased. The recognized beneficial uses of water have increased to include fish, wildlife and wetland purposes, water quality and recreation."

The judge ordered the remaining unappropriated water from the Truckee River to be allocated to the Tribe with no more water appropriations available.

U.S. Attorney Daniel G. Bogden represented the United States government in filing the request on the Tribe's behalf.

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