In Carson: A tug-of-war over the Carson River
River water does not intrude into well water, but each minds its own business.
That old Chinese proverb can be fighting words to Carson River and Truckee River stakeholders, some of whom want to change how and where water is used and others who want to stop them.
Officials and water experts from Douglas and Lyon counties, and developers in those communities say moving the point of diversion or changing the use of groundwater does not negatively impact the Carson River.
Representatives from Churchill County and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians disagree.
The dispute has led to a backlog of 1,900 protests to the State Water Engineer’s office that are holding up water applications.
“The tribe is basically protesting every water transfer in the Carson River basin,” said Ed James, general manger of the Carson Water Subconservancy District.
James said the protests affect potential developments and even planned public facilities such as hospitals.
Mike Workman, Lyon County utilities director, said the protests were partially responsible for stalled development in the county, along with the housing slowdown.
He said the across-the-board protests by the Pyramid Lake tribe began in the summer of 2006, and many water change applications are also protested by Churchill County officials.
Both those entities are concerned that groundwater pumping could impact the Carson River, causing less water to flow into Lake Lahontan.
“An easy way to think about it is a snow cone or Slurpee,” said Brad Goetsch, Churchill County manager. “You put the straw in the bottom and you get all the liquid out and there’s just ice left. That’s groundwater. If you continue to pour the syrup in, you can continue to suck it out, but if you’re not pouring it in, you’re depleting the surface water.”
The Paiutes are concerned that if Carson River flows to Lahontan are reduced, water will be taken from the Truckee River by way of the Truckee canal.
Tribal officials will continue to object to any change orders until the Carson Valley and Dayton Valley Hydrographic Basins are proven stable, said Don Springmeyer, attorney for the tribe.
Allocation of the water in the Carson River is based on the Alpine Decree, a settlement that goes back to the 1800s and provides for senior water rights, those before 1860, and junior rights, or rights that have been assigned since.
James said someone with a senior right downstream can’t dictate what happens upstream, even if someone with a junior right wants to make changes.
He said the U.S. Geological Survey has determined that pumping groundwater can affect the river, but added the impact depended on the well.
Workman said his research indicates water changes produce little impact to the river in the Dayton Valley.
“A well in Carson Plains within 400 feet of the river on the north side produces water that’s close to 90 degrees,” he said. “The river water is much cooler and there’s a completely different chemical makeup on the water. Numerous wells on the north side close to the river have thermal influence, so there’s not a connection to the river.”
He also discounted the theory that municipal use more seriously impacts both the water table and the river.
“Much less water is used in domestic use than agricultural,” he said, adding he had maps of Rolling A Ranch, when the water was used for irrigation, that showed more water used before development. “We think that we’ve got rights under the Alpine Decree and we’re not impacting the river flow negatively.”
Despite not conceding any points in the disputes with Churchill County or the Pyramid Lake Paiutes, Workman said he was meeting with Churchill officials to try and find common ground.
Without offering specifics, Workman said he has been working with Churchill County officials on a draft agreement to monitor the river and groundwater table.
The two sides met Tuesday, joined by Springmeyer.
Workman said he was still moving forward with the protest process, which will require the filing of briefs by June 24, even as negotiations continue to have the protests withdrawn.
“It’s a really complex and sensitive issue,” he said. “We’ve had some very good discussions and we’re giving it our best efforts to resolve it. If not, we’ll be prepared to go to hearing.”
James said the subconservancy is also working on a plan to monitor and manage the river.
“We want to make sure the basins are not being overproduced or overpumped, that the water tables are not dropping,” he said. “You’ll have water tables fluctuate up and down, that’s normal, but if you see a steady decline, that’s not sustainable.”
James said Johnson Lane, Ruhenstroth and Stagecoach have shown a steady decline in the water table, but wells are recovering in Dayton, which James said was generally in equilibrium.
He said Carson City was well diversified in the water supply and wasn’t affected by the protests. Storey County was not affected by the Carson River protests, but was affected by protests of water applications by Tahoe Reno Industrial Center.
James said the situation in Silver Springs was difficult to measure because of the Lahontan Reservoir.
“More of their water table might not be dropping but what water are they pulling, is it groundwater or surface water from Lahontan?” he asked. “That’s an unknown at this point. Until we know more, you can’t say there’s a problem, but I think there will be a problem in the future.”
James said the main issue for the conservancy is to make sure one group is not adversely affecting another.
“Our role is to ensure the water is properly managed and that water-right owners are not adversely affected by changes,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid litigation.”
It’s easy to believe there’s plenty of water in Northern Nevada if you’re looking at it from upstream.
That’s the message from the two largest protesters of water rights changes in both the Truckee and the Carson River.
Don Springmeyer, attorney for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians, said the tribe protests every water change to protect its interests. The Paiutes’ main revenue source is fishing, camping and boating at the lake, which is fed by the Truckee River. A few Indian ranchers have water rights for livestock and growing alfalfa, he said.
He said if Lahontan Reservoir didn’t get enough water from the Carson River, water will be taken from the Truckee.
“We’re not saying we have to tell you what you do with the water, as long as every drop that has to get to the Lahontan reservoir actually gets to the Lahontan reservoir,” he said.
Springmeyer blamed the Newlands Project, designed to irrigate the desert and lure settlers to Nevada in the early part of the century, for dropping the lake 80 feet by the 1930s and rendering Lake Winnemucca, over the foothills to the east of Pyramid, dry.
“The Bureau of Reclamation built dams to divert water to the Newlands Project,” Springmeyer said. “They created the Newlands Project to seduce people to move out here and then later realized they screwed the tribe and hurt the environment.”
He said if Lahontan reservoir levels drop, the difference will be made up by diverting water through the Truckee Canal at the Derby Dam, to the reservoir.
He said the tribe wants to see the end of the Truckee Canal.
“Close the Truckee Canal and then you can do whatever you want with the Carson River,” he said. “They want the Newlands Project to rely on the Carson River for its complete water source.”
Springmeyer said Pyramid Lake has been recovering since the 1930s, but it’s not what it was. He said Lake Winnemucca will never come back until the canal is closed.
He said the tribe wanted all applications suspended until a comprehensive study of the Carson Valley and Dayton Valley Hydrographic basins were completed and proof existed they were not being overpumped.
He said most of the tribe’s protests in Washoe County’s stretch of the Truckee River have been settled by the Truckee River Operating Agreement, but protests are still being filed in the Truckee Canyon area of Storey County, including applications from the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center.
Springmeyer said the tribe is studying a draft agreement put together by Lyon County and Churchill County officials.
Brad Goetsch, Churchill County manager, said his county doesn’t protest every change application, but only “anything where pumping or surface water rights impacted senior water rights downstream.”
He said protests would be triggered if the application was for temporary use, but the use was not temporary in nature; if there is no water available without exceeding safe or perennial yield; if the use conflicts with senior rights by the county or its residents; or if the use is detrimental to the health and safety of Churchill County residents.
“Our water laws were made at a time when we were begging for people to come to Nevada,” he said. “So they were developed with the idea of attracting people.
We’ve now got a robust economy and large population. Now it’s time to take a look at the environment and the people that are here.”
He said over the past 10 years there have been dozens of new wells and applications to move points of diversion to near the river, which he said takes water from the river.
His biggest objection is the moving of water rights from the Stagecoach sub-basin to near the Carson River in Carson Plains, adding that all Churchill wants is a guarantee of no impact.
“Churchill County has offered to withdraw its protests if Lyon will guarantee that if studies show they impact the river, they’ll put back the same amount of water,” he said. “We don’t want to interfere with their economic development, we just want to be sure that they obey the law.”
Goetsch said in the end, all Churchill County officials want is for the character and flows in the Carson River to be sustained and maintained.
“We think its a great resource for recreation, for power, and it supports the Newlands Project and all the agriculture in Lyon and Churchill counties,” he said.
“We think the Walker River, Carson River and Truckee River should all be allowed to flow, to host fish and wildlife and to support the senior water rights holders who have obeyed the law.”