SCHURZ, Nev. - Robert Quintero, the chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribal Council, apprehensively surveys the sun-baked view of his tribe's 360,000-acre reservation near the Nevada-California border. Five miles downstream, Walker Lake has been slowly getting saltier as a century's worth of irrigation diversions from the Walker River has cut the lake's volume to a quarter of its original size (HCN, 9/13/99).
The past three years' drought has further
cheated the lake of water. This year, the river hasn't reached the
lake since January. Experts predict that Walker could soon become a
salt lake, destroying an important population of threatened
Lahontan cutthroat trout - on which the tribe once depended for
food - and an economically important sport
"If the lake doesn't get water this
year," says Quintero, "that's it for the fish."
Help may be on the way: The Bureau of Land
Management - the principal landowner around the lake - is scheduled
to release a draft environmental impact statement for a project
designed to preserve freshwater inflows, assist in the recovery of
the trout, and settle a water rights claim by the Walker River
The study is causing some
apprehension, however, because it may call for 45 percent of the
Walker River's average annual flow to go to the lake - most likely
through the purchase of irrigation rights from farmers upstream.
Ken Spooner, the general manager of the Walker River Irrigation
District, says that such a buyout has "the potential for destroying
the economic basis of agriculture in this region."
For the farmers, the BLM's study will only
complicate the long-running fight over Walker River water rights.
Seven years ago, the federal government filed a lawsuit against the
irrigation district on the tribe's behalf, seeking rights to an
as-yet-unspecified amount of water. Last year, the irrigation
district decided to initiate an out-of-court settlement process,
but negotiations have yet to begin.
it's clear that something needs to be done for Walker Lake soon.
The BLM's John Singlaub says his agency is looking at short-term
solutions, such as borrowing water from the Forest Service or
Hawthorne Army Depot, or paying farmers to fallow their fields.
Says Singlaub, "These water right settlement agreements often take
one or two decades to get resolved, and we can't wait that long for