No final solutions for farmers

  • Fallon, Nevada

    Diane Sylvain
  • Fallon farmer Ted DeBraga

    Jon Christensen

Note: this feature article is one of several in this special issue about the Great Basin.

"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 title:


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 opposite directions.

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.

Fallon has 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 community.

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.

The 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 overallocated river.

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.

Ted DeBraga's great-grandfather was working in the mines east of here when he saw one of the posters announcing the opening of the Newlands Project.

"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.

"They 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 water supply."

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 system.

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."

Townspeople and 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."

Although 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.

Given the 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 negotiating changes.

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 needs."

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 "cultural genocide."

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 even Schank.

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."

In their 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 litigation.

"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.

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