Why go after Carson River groundwater?
If groundwater in the Carson River basin is subject to scrutiny by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, that standard should apply to the Truckee River basin as well, say representatives of the Carson Valley Water Authority.
Water engineer Jim Vasey, who is coordinating the response by the water authority to the Tribe’s challenge of the Alpine decree surface water and groundwater rights, said in all its litigation on the Truckee River, the Tribe never made a similar claim with respect to the groundwater.
“I don’t know why,” Vasey said. “If they go through the settlement agreement they’re involved in now and it doesn’t have a groundwater element, people in that basin may be threatened down the road in action similar to what the Paiute Tribe and their attorney are trying to bring about here.
“If I were in the Truckee Meadows, I would be concerned that this particular challenge in the Carson River basin could be brought forward at some future date,” Vasey said.
The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, through their attorney Robert Pelcyger, has asked federal officials to look at management of the Alpine decree which regulates how Carson River water is distributed. What users of the upper Carson River basin fear is the federal government becoming involved in groundwater resources which have always been under state jurisdiction.
“I’m every bit as concerned about their attack on groundwater as I am about the Alpine decree,” Vasey said. “What people don’t recognize is that domestic wells are under attack. They may end up with some regulation of pumpage.”
Mervin Wright Jr., chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, said the Truckee and Carson river basins are different.
“We’re not looking at two identical river basins with the same types of activities,” Wright said. “Most of the groundwater pumping on the Truckee is for municipal and industrial use and for drinking water. On the Carson side, there is municipal and industrial use, but there is also an amount of agriculture use.
“During the irrigation season when the surface rights are being called on, that water can be diverted through head gates and provided to the fields. When that can’t be met because of low flows, pumps can be turned on to irrigate agriculture areas and certain times of the year, the groundwater recharges the Carson River with pumping activity,” Wright said.
One of the requests of the Pyramid Tribe, Vasey said, is to identify all the Carson basin groundwater rights with post-1902 priorities.
“I’m not aware of any groundwater rights that are pre-1902 in the Carson Valley, so what they are asking is that all groundwater rights be regulated,” Vasey said.
“If we were to stop pumping all rights except pre-1902, that would be all wells, including domestic. The wells which serve the towns of Minden, Gardnerville and the Ranchos all would be regulated for Lahontan Reservoir 1902 storage rights,” Vasey said.
“The groundwater is our source for municipal water supplies,” he said. “We all drink water pumped from the ground. If we have to cease pumping everything with post-1902 rights, there would be no water to serve the people who are here today. There would be no water rights for the future.”
According to the state, there are 2,818 individual domestic wells in Carson Valley, Vasey said. The largest single user of groundwater pumpage on the Carson River is the Lahontan Fish Hatchery, Vasey added, which raises the endangered species cutthroat trout.
“What Pelcyger claims is an interconnection,” Vasey said. “If you pump groundwater, that directly affects the flow in the Carson River which affects the amount of water that goes to Lahontan. Historically, the state has treated surface water and groundwater as separate resources.”
“Right now, the folks up in Carson Valley feel the administration of the Alpine decree has not been one of controversy or at least in question,” Wright said. “However, on our side, we have a contrary perception of what’s going on in the upper Carson.
“We need to be able to bridge that gap of perception and misunderstanding. That’s the principal reason why we met with the Carson Valley Water Authority. We do know when it gets to groundwater pumping for municipal and industrial use and agriculture, it gets very sensitive.”
Wright reiterated that the Paiute Tribe is not interested in forcing the issue into expensive litigation.
“Unfortunately, when an attorney writes on behalf of a client, it gets people panicking about the legal action that might be coming,” Wright said. “This is not about filing a lawsuit. It’s about the mechanics of enforcing the management of the decree, and that’s it.
“Even if we were able to achieve settlement, I don’t think everyone will be happy,” Wright said. “We appreciate the efforts of the Carson Valley Water Authority and Douglas County commissioners to meet us half way and get to the point of understanding each other.”