Appeals court sends Paiute water battle back to district court

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday sent the latest water battle between the state engineer and the Pyramid Paiute tribe back to district court.

The tribe sued saying a state engineer's ruling allocating groundwater in the Tracy Hydrologic Basin violates the historic Orr Ditch Decree by adversely affecting tribal water rights at Pyramid Lake. The district court agreed with the state it didn't have jurisdiction over the case because the Orr Ditch Decree only adjudicated surface water rights.

The appellate court Wednesday reversed that ruling.

The court held that the Orr Ditch Decree forbids groundwater allocations adversely affecting the tribe's water rights. It also ruled that the district court has jurisdiction over an appeal of groundwater allocations.

The Orr Ditch Decree signed in 1944 allocated waters from the Truckee River between the tribe and other users. It was designed to settle disputes which began more than 100 years ago between the tribe, upstream river users and farmers in the Newlands Reclamation Project near Fallon. Federal lawsuits designed to settle water rights throughout the Truckee River and Carson River basins resulted in the Orr Ditch Decree, which gave the tribe the most senior water rights on the Truckee River.

This case started after the state engineer increased the estimated yield of the Tracy Basin from 6,000 acre feet a year to 11,500 acre feet of water a year. After making that decision, the engineer granted more water rights in the Tracy Basin saying even if it was over-allocated, groundwater shouldn't be counted as part of the tribe's surface water rights granted by the decree.

Tribal lawyers went to court arguing their Truckee River water rights would be adversely affected if available water in that basin was over-allocated.

The appellate court agreed and sent the issue back to district court saying "we therefore hold that the decree protects the tribe from allocations of groundwater that would adversely affect its decreed water rights...."

The ruling directs the district court to determine whether the tribe's claims are valid or not.


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