Column: Water can cause wars in the Valley
“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over,” Mark Twain observed.
Factual details about the Carson River’s sloughs, dams, reservoirs, channels and canals can be found in the Alpine Land and Reservoir Final Decree of 1980, Grace Dangberg’s “Conflict on the Carson, A Study of Water Litigation in Western Nevada” or the California Department of Water Resources Carson River Atlas. This is about the people along the Carson River.
The first story is true. A surviving grandchild of the man whose actions I am going to describe confirmed the facts. The grandchild is in his 80s now. The second story was overheard dinner conversation with a bunch of young ranchers. At the time, they said they couldn’t remember the names of the men involved.
First story: The man’s ranch ran alongside the East Fork of the Carson River just outside of Gardnerville. One spring, he tied his legs and hands together and jumped off the bridge. The river was flooding over his property and ruining his fields once more. He left a note saying the river couldn’t fight with him anymore. Too much high water in spring some years, then other years the river, more like a creek as we see it these dry days of September, didn’t offer enough water to keep his fields growing. So, he jumped. The river couldn’t fight with him anymore.
Second story: A man would go out quietly in the dry, late summer nights, taking no light. He would open irrigation boxes in another rancher’s field to divert water back to the river so this water thief could take water downstream for his field.
One night, the owner of the field was out checking his boxes, trying to make certain the little bit of water he was getting from the river was going as far as it could, when he came across the trespassing man. The rancher raised his shovel over the water thief who was bent down in the ditch to pull boards once again. The thief never saw the shovel as it came down on his head. No one was arrested. This was the West of the 1800s and early 1900s.
Water wars were fought in courts as well as in the fields. Ditch riders working for ore mines in the Sierra Nevada and Virginia City tried to keep a constant flow of water to their mills. Settlers already established in the area needed water to grow crops for themselves, the miners and new families settling the West. Incredible conflicts lasted for more than 55 years.
Then the water wars may have ended for our ranch in 1980 when a lawsuit brought by the federal government against all water users on the Carson River was finally settled with the Alpine Decree. This decree established how much water could be used, and by whom, when and where. A water master of the court enforces the Decree.
As fields brown up all around the Valley, the water master does the best he can by making no one particularly happy. We all know the power of water, therefore, we keep our shovels down and our bridges clear – so far.
n Marie Johnson is a Fredericksburg, Calif., resident and is married to Kent Neddenriep. They have two sons, Kyle, 12, and Bradley, 9. Her column, “Fence lines,” appears once a month.