American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe v. Morton

The case of Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe v. Morton brought to the courts' attention the fact that not all cases regarding Indian water policy necessarily involved water for agriculture. Early in the twentieth century, the Winters doctrine had set out the principle that Indian tribes had a reserved right to enough water to fulfill the purpose of their reservation, but that purpose had been almost exclusively defined by subsequent court decisions and Bureau of Indian Affairs policy as irrigated agriculture. Irrigation also was foremost in the minds of officials of the Bureau of Reclamation as they sought to develop the West's water resources for the benefit of non-Indian farmers.

In 1902, passage of the Reclamation Act, sponsored by Congressman Francis Newlands of Nevada, began the modern age of western water development. The first project funded by the new apparatus, devised by and named after Newlands himself, was the first case in the new century in which Indians had to deal with a massive loss of water rights due to non-Indian water development (Wilkinson, 1992). The construction of the Newlands Reclamation Project in California's Central Valley, the first large-scale attempt by the federal government to subsidize irrigated agriculture in the West, involved diverting much of the area's water, including that of Pyramid Lake in Nevada, which is sacred to the Pyramid Lake Paiutes. Pyramid Lake, completely within the tribe's reservation boundaries and the source of their livelihood by fishing, became a shadow of its former self. The Newlands Project also entailed an immense construction on the Truckee River near Fallon, Nevada. The original proposal intended to divert the waters of the Carson River to feed the project, but, when those waters proved insufficient, reclamation officials turned their eyes toward the Truckee.

The construction of Derby Dam, about thirty-five miles upstream from Pyramid Lake, reduced the river's flow by half, which both lowered the level of the lake by about seventy feet and permitted the buildup of silt. This led to an insufficient flow to prevent the salination of the lake, a factor in the death of the Lahontan cutthroat trout, the primary source of livelihood for the area's Paiutes. Consideration of the lake and its associated wetlands as resources in their own right, apart from agriculture, was not something the courts or the Department of the Interior were prepared to accept. By the late 1960s, the Secretary of the Interior issued regulations regarding how much water could be diverted from Pyramid Lake, but by that time the fishery and wetlands were so seriously damaged that it would take a complete change in course to restore the tribe's asset.

In the case of Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe v. Morton, a federal district court ruled that the allocation of water by the Interior Department violated the government's trust responsibility toward the Indians (Fixico, 1988). The court cited the trust responsibility of the federal government as requiring it to protect Pyramid Lake for the use of the tribe. The case pointed out the often contradictory nature of government policy in the area of water rights. While one federal agency within the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation, was developing non-Indian water resources with no attention to Indian needs, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was ineffectively "advocating" for those Indian needs. In the end, it took the cooperation of environmentalist groups, reacting in response to the highly toxic materials leached out as a by-product of Newlands irrigation, to get the diversions from the Truckee River reduced. Unfortunately, this has had the unfortunate side effect of concentrating the leached toxins in the water that remained.

After fourteen years of negotiations, the California–Nevada Interstate Water Compact was signed in 1968 to allocate waters in Lake Tahoe and the Truckee, Carson, and Walker River basins. The agreement served the interests of local water user groups in Nevada and California but infringed, once again, on the water rights of the Pyramid Lake Paiutes. Eventually, the compact of 1968 was amended. The California and Nevada state legislatures approved the new version in 1971, but Congress refused to ratify it (Haller, 1989). It was not until 1990 that parties in the region were able to reach agreement on the Truckee-Carson-Pyramid Lake Water Rights Settlement, which ensured enough water flow into Pyramid Lake to resurrect the damaged wetlands, which are so integral to the Pyramid Lake Paiute identity and lifeways.

Steven L. Danver


Further Reading
Fixico, Donald L. 1988. The Invasion of Indian Country in the Twentieth Century: American Capitalism and Tribal Natural Resources. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.; Haller, Timothy G. 1989. "The Legislative Battle Over the California–Nevada Interstate Water Compact: A Question of Might Versus Native American Right." Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 32 no. 3.; Wilkinson, Charles F. 1992. Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the American West. Washington, DC: Island Press.
 

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