-IRRIGATED HOMESTEAD LANDS. Now Open to Entry. THE LAND is FREE. Water Rights furnished by the U.S. Reclamation Service. Water Supply under the Great Lahontan Reservoir is permanent and assured."
Many families and
businesses in the town of Fallon have a reproduction of the 1914
flyer that made that promise hanging on their walls. It's more than
a curiosity. Some of the families were brought to the Lahontan
Valley by that poster.
Now another poster vies
for their attention. The newcomer features a lush, bird-book style
painting of sandpipers, ibises, and pelicans in a vivid green marsh
of bulrushes and cattails framed by the austere flanks of the
Stillwater Range. Beneath the image is a simple
"LAHONTAN VALLEY WETLANDS - A GREAT BASIN
OASIS. FALLON, NEVADA."
The Newlands Water
Protective Association distributes the first poster; the second is
from The Nature Conservancy. Their radically different images are
ripples, hinting at strong countercurrents pulling this valley in
The Lahontan Valley is a
farming community that is becoming an "edge city" downstream from a
metro area that sprawls from Reno to Carson City and Gardnerville
along the middle reaches of the Truckee and Carson rivers. A line
of commuter traffic snakes home from Reno on Highway 50 every
weekday evening, as a town that still sees itself as the antithesis
of the city becomes another suburb.
about 10,000 residents. Another 10,000 live in the surrounding
areas of Churchill County, which has a growth rate close to Reno's
3 percent per year.
It's an area that planners
would call "transitional." Fewer than one out of five farms in the
valley today provides families with their primary income. But there
are many part-time farmers. They grow alfalfa, keep a small herd of
cows and have a job in town or in Reno. Around 2,000 people work at
the "Top Gun" fighter training school at the Fallon Naval Air
Station - 800 civilians and 1,200 sailors make it the largest
employer in town. Some of the school's graduates eventually return
to retire in what many still see as a quiet, old-fashioned farming
The Lahontan Valley
has been an oasis for millennia. People have made their homes by
the wetlands at the end of the Carson River for at least 5,000
years. Paiute Indians thrived on waterfowl and cattails.
When the U.S. Reclamation Service was created in
1902, in legislation pushed by Congressman Francis Newlands of
Nevada, the valley was chosen for its first project. Its main
feature is a canal that carries water 40 miles across the desert
from the Truckee River, and its terminus in Pyramid Lake, and on to
Fallon's irrigated fields. To the reclamation boosters and to the
farmers, water was being wasted on the lake.
Newlands Project took all the water that could be squeezed into the
canal. Deprived of those flows, Pyramid Lake dropped precipitously,
thrusting the Truckee River into one of the longest running water
wars in the West. For the better part of this century, this war has
been waged through court battles over water rights along the
In the late 1960s, the
Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe seized on the Endangered Species Act, and
the listing of two native fish, as legal levers to launch a fight
for enough additional water to keep the lake alive. In the early
1970s, the secretary of Interior decided to use water stored
upstream in a federal reservoir exclusively for Pyramid Lake. Later
federal court decisions required the Bureau of Reclamation to
tighten up the Newlands Project's inefficient irrigation system -
in which up to 45 percent of the water diverted from the Truckee
River is lost to seepage and evaporation - so that more water could
flow to the lake. Taken together, these battles led to complicated
arrangements for parceling out the river and to constant fighting.
In 1990, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., took a major
step toward ending the struggles when he brokered a settlement
among the major players on the Truckee River. The agreement set the
stage for dramatic changes, including tighter controls on the
area's irrigation water and restoration of wetlands. But the
Newlands farmers wouldn't buy into the deal. They walked away from
the talks and back into court.
Since then, the
farmers have been fighting and steadily losing a legal and
bureaucratic war of attrition with the Pyramid tribe and the
federal government. While the lawyers fight, the Bureau of
Reclamation has been implementing the 1990 agreement by ratcheting
down water deliveries through the Truckee canal.
Last fall, Sen. Reid agreed to
"second-generation negotiations' to settle remaining problems, and
the farmers came back to the table. In the words of Lyman
McConnell, director of the Truckee Carson Irrigation District, they
hoped to reach a "permanent and final solution" with the outside
world. They wanted to free themselves from tribal lawsuits and from
"micromanaging" by the Bureau of Reclamation. But the farmers faced
a new problem. The unity and certainty that led them to stalk out
of the 1990 talks was gone. In its place was doubt about their
fitness to represent the entire Fallon community, and uncertainty
as to their bottom line.
DeBraga's great-grandfather was working in the mines east of here
when he saw one of the posters announcing the opening of the
"They say this is a mistake
now," DeBraga says, gesturing around his ranch near the Stillwater
National Wildlife Refuge, at the end of the maze of irrigation
canals supplying the farms of Fallon. "Maybe it was. They screwed
the Indians and now us. Well, two wrongs don't make a right."
As chairman of the Truckee Carson Irrigation
District, DeBraga led the farmers' negotiating team out of the 1990
talks. This time, DeBraga decided it was time for a change. "I felt
I put in so many years trying to negotiate it that some new blood
would be good," he says.
Leadership on water had
always come from the farmers. Water was nobody's business but their
own. But last year, in the face of the new negotiations, community
leaders in the Lahontan Valley tried to change course. Irrigation
district director McConnell attributes the new tack to talks at the
University of Colorado Natural Resources Law Center in Boulder. "We
learned to try to resolve natural resource problems in
communities," he says.
The first step was to put
together a broad-based group. Karl Dodge, a former state senator
and the valley's largest agricultural land owner, helped form the
Lahontan Valley Environmental Alliance. It's a mix of townspeople,
elected officials, irrigators and farmers. A broader advisory board
includes wetlands and wildlife advocates.
represent a new generation of leadership in the valley," says
Dodge. "They've articulated the community interest and they haven't
been talking about protecting a bunch of farmers but protecting our
Dodge credits Mary Reid, a
University of Nevada extension agent, with laying the groundwork
for the alliance. For three years, Reid has been holding workshops
and facilitating meetings to help Fallon understand its water
Water in Fallon isn't just about crops.
Irrigation water recharges the shallow aquifer that most people
pump into their homes, Reid says. "There won't be a community left
if there's no irrigation water."
farmers share a culture, says Jim Johnson, an insurance salesman
who owns 19 acres of irrigated land and is chairman of the
alliance. "Anyone who wants to understand why they ought to protect
the lifestyle of Fallon just needs to go to Las Vegas for a couple
of days. This is a quiet community with a strong set of values.
We're all in this together."
the Lahontan Valley Environmental Alliance's goals in the
negotiations included securing funding for a municipal water system
for the growing community, in the end it turned out that the new
group wanted exactly what the farmers wanted: to keep as much water
coming to the valley as possible.
tensions between Fallon, the federal government and the Pyramid
tribe, it fell to the environmentalists to try to offer solutions
that could move everybody toward a workable agreement.
That was right where The Nature Conservancy and
the Environmental Defense Fund wanted to be - at the center of
efforts to reform the Newlands Project and restore the Lahontan
Valley wetlands and Pyramid Lake.
After nearly a
decade, David Yardas of the Environmental Defense Fund understands
the technical details of the system and the positions of the
players better than anyone, including the Bureau of Reclamation.
From the beginning, negotiators agreed to use his computer model of
how water moves through the rivers and canals as the basis for
The environmentalists put a
complex package on the table: reduced diversions from the Truckee,
a leasing program that would allow farmers to trade water, a
municipal water system for Fallon, and an agreement by
environmentalists to scale back purchases of irrigation water for
wetlands in return for a guarantee from farmers that a certain
amount of wastewater would drain into the wetlands.
The environmental position was shaped by a
desire to "allow power to be devolved downward to let the community
figure out how to live within an upper limit and a lower limit,"
says Graham Chisholm of The Nature Conservancy. "We're trying to
find middle ground, to change the project but balance legitimate
But as the negotiations went nowhere,
the environmentalists began to ask whether the Lahontan Valley
wanted to control its destiny. "At a certain point you have to say,
"You come up with solutions," " says Chisholm. "They were still
trying to keep themselves whole, when this is about change."
In the end, the power and the bottom-line
position of Fallon came back to where it had always been: with the
water owners. And as Ernie Schank's experience showed, the farmers
weren't about to change.
Schank represented the
water owners on the Lahontan Valley Environmental Alliance's
negotiating team. Before the negotiations, Schank declared, "If we
start removing water from water-righted lands, we will destroy
Fallon." He called the changes coming to the Lahontan Valley
But during the
negotiations, the Lahontan Valley negotiating team, including
Schank, agreed to decrease diversions from the Truckee River and
ensure a secure water supply for the wetlands. However, when Schank
brought the agreements back to the Newlands Water Protective
Association, he was attacked by his fellow farmers. Some threatened
to sue the Lahontan Valley Environmental Alliance, negotiators, and
In the end, Schank could not escape
his roots. As negotiations reached a critical juncture, he told the
editor of the irrigation district newsletter about a dream he'd
had. In his account of the dream, which was printed a week before
the final negotiating session, Schank was driving down the road to
his house when he saw spray-painted in red across the road: "Schank
is a traitor. He gave our water away."
final sessions, as the farmers took control of the Lahontan Valley
negotiating team, the environmentalists suggested an interim
agreement that would allow five years to test the effects of lower
diversions from the Truckee River, increased independence for the
irrigation district to manage the Newlands Project, guaranteed
deliveries to the wetlands, and a water bank that would allow
farmers to lease and store water in order to even out drought and
flood years. But the farmers would not agree to any increased risk
of irrigation shortages during drought years. Instead, the farmers
demanded a permanent settlement on their own terms and an end to
all lawsuits. It was an automatic deal-breaker.
Once again the farmers had decided that their
best strategy was resistance. The Republican takeover in Congress
may have given the Fallon farmers hope that the Bureau of
Reclamation would stop tinkering with their private property water
rights. Within days, some of them flew to Washington to drum up
support. Lawyers for the protective association and the city of
Fallon talk about suing the federal government for "taking" their
water without compensation.
Five years after the
first negotiations started, the Lahontan Valley is still stuck in
stonewalled negotiations and endless
"The leadership exists to fight the
good fight and go down in flames," says David Yardas, "but not yet
to take risks to spearhead an agreement and stop the community from
slowly drying up. We've done about all we can to describe a path
that would work and be equitable. If they want to fight, I guess I
don't have much to contribute. That's not what I'm in it for. I'm
in it for the resource and to find a new way to do business."
Meanwhile, the Lahontan Valley races toward a
suburban future. Ed Brush, a member of the board of the Truckee
Carson Irrigation District, stands near a field he has recently
subdivided. "I really hated to do it," he says. "But these people
really hate Reno anymore. So they're moving out. They're coming out
here and building houses." Just down the road, bulldozers are busy
reshaping alfalfa fields into a golf course and residential
development. In a larger sense, they are reworking this valley into
a shape everyone says they don't want.