Low water at Weber reservoir causes thousands of fish to die

SCHURZ - Thousands of fish are rotting and downstream crops are shriveling up in the desert sun because of low water supplies at a northern Nevada reservoir.

Leaders of the Walker River Paiute Tribe have declared the situation at Weber Reservoir an emergency and blame the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the river water master for the stinky mess.

Tribal leaders insist BIA's requirement that reservoir storage be limited to a third of maximum capacity due to dam safety concerns is mostly to blame.

''We believe the Bureau of Indian Affairs has failed the Walker River Paiute Tribe,'' tribal chairman Robert Quintero said Thursday.

Located 16 miles upstream from Walker Lake, Weber Dam was built in 1934. The 43-foot-high earth-fill dam located on an earthquake fault is leaking and engineers fear it could collapse during an earthquake.

Weber Dam is at the top of the BIA's high-hazard list for dams but plans to rebuild the structure have been delayed, in part due to discussions over whether the project should include a costly fish ladder so native Lahontan cutthroat trout can spawn up the river.

Worried that the dam poses a serious safety threat to 1,500 people living downstream, the BIA in February ordered that maximum capacity of Weber Reservoir be dropped from more than 10,000 acre-feet to 2,350 acre-feet.

Agencies with a role in supplying water to the reservation admit to errors last week that led to current problems.

Roger Bezayiff, Walker River water master, said he mistakenly did not release enough water into the river to ensure the tribes 26.25 cubic feet per second entitlement was met.

Inflow to Weber Reservoir dropped unbeknownst to the BIA, which controls the reservoir's outflow.

''We didn't coordinate to make sure what we were releasing was matching what was going in,'' said Chuck O'Rourke, BIA natural resource officer. ''We thought we had more water than we actually did so it just dried up on us.''

Low water and low oxygen levels began killing fish last Saturday. The BIA closed the outflow gates to raise reservoir levels and all downstream irrigation stopped.

''Right now we are trying to build the water level back up so we don't kill any more fish,'' O'Rourke said.

Meanwhile, thousands of fish are rotting in the sun from the reservoir miles downstream into the Shurz area north of Hawthorne. Some 2,100 acres of farmland cannot be irrigated and 2,500 cattle are without normal drinking water supplies.

''We feel it is a very grave situation,'' said Jon McMasters, a water resources specialist for the tribe. Dead fish, he said, are ''probably in the thousands with more to come.''

Tribal member Harold Miller worries over the future of his alfalfa fields, which haven't been irrigated for days. Fish that had been swimming in irrigation canals on his land are now rotting on dry land.

''I don't know what's going to happen to my crop. There's fish lying all over and they stink like hell,'' Miller said. ''This is total disaster. Somebody's going to have to do something pretty quick.''

Tribal officials worry over economic impacts resulting from the irrigation stoppage and potential health threats from all the rotting fish.

On Tuesday, the Tribal Council declared an ''economic and natural resource disaster.''

Quintero said the BIA should speed up replacement of the dam, a project he fears could be four or five years away. During that time, Quintero said, the tribe could face continued water emergencies due to the cap on maximum reservoir storage.

Increasing maximum storage of the existing dam is probably not an option, said the BIA's O'Rourke. ''According to our engineers, it's not safe to do that,'' he said.


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