First deal of its kind gives tribe say over water off reservation
RENO, Nev. – Tribal leaders entered the first agreement of its kind with the U.S. government on Monday, assuming significant control of water resources off their reservation in an effort to save endangered fish.
”It is a big deal,” said Norm Harry, chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe based in Nixon, Nev.
”It will enable us to meet the needs of the 21st century while restoring this historic, but fragile environment,” he said.
Harry signed the agreement along the banks of the Truckee River with representatives of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Indian Affairs.
It gives the tribe the lead role in scheduling releases of water from two Truckee River reservoirs to benefit the endangered cui ui (pronounced ”kee-wee”) and threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout.
”From my view, it is precedent setting,” said Betsy Rieke, area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation and former assistant U.S. Interior secretary.
It’s the first time the government has voluntarily turned over the scheduling of water releases for fish to a tribe when the water is located outside the reservation boundaries, she said.
”The Fish and Wildlife Service is turning over a piece of its Endangered Species Act responsibilities to the tribe,” she said.
The tribe has fished the high desert lake about 30 miles northeast of Reno for thousands of years.
Located within the reservation, the lake is one of the last remnants of the prehistoric inland sea, Lake Lahontan, that once covered most of the Great Basin stretching from Nevada to Oregon, Idaho and Utah.
It is part of the Truckee River ecosystem that runs about 100 miles from the alpine waters of Lake Tahoe, dropping nearly 3,000 feet in altitude by the time it reaches the reservation.
”This was Indian water years ago,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who helped broker the deal.
That was before the federal government assumed control in the early 1900s for the Newlands irrigation project that turned the high desert into fertile farmland.
”We’ve been trying to figure out ways to get the federal government out of the river and this is one way to do it,” Reid said at the signing ceremony Monday.
The Truckee River is central to ”all that happens” in Reno, Sparks and neighboring communities, he said.
”We’ve come to realize this only in recent years. The Pyramid Lake Tribe has known this forever,” he said.
Elizabeth Stevens, deputy manager of Fish and Wildlife Service operations in California and Nevada and the daughter of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, said her agency views the deal as ”a positive step forward toward recovery” of the fish.
Under the agreement, the tribe will take the lead role in scheduling water releases from the Stampede and Prosser Creek reservoirs.
Representatives of the tribe and federal agencies will share management decisions as part of an interagency management team.
But ”if there’s ever a question, the tribe has the opportunity to say this is the way we’re going to do it,” said Bob Williams, Nevada field director for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
”Historically, the Fish and Wildlife Service had the final call,” he said.