Beverly Orozco
The fight for Walker River and Walker Lake water rights is nothing new to longtime residents of Mineral County.

A Nevada case called the “Rickey Decree” became a battle for water rights from the Walker River in 1902.

The rancher, Henry Miller known as the “Cattle King of the West” brought the suit against Thomas B. Rickey, a Nevada farmer, through Rickey’s Miller & Lux land company.

This battle started the fight for water spanning 116 years, water that comes from the mountains near Yosemite National Park and ending at Walker Lake, an ancient body of water located in Mineral County, Nev.

In 1919, the water from the “Rickey Decree” would try to split the precious commodity between 151 users.

In 1924, a new case would spring forth from the “Rickey Decree” when the federal government moved to establish water on the Walker River Indian Reservation, a small tribal community along the banks of the Walker River, also located in Mineral County.

So began a new fight for water. This time, 254 names would be listed within the half-inch Walker River Decree – each wanting to bring water onto their lands.

Over time, the ecology of Walker River and Walker Lake would take a dangerous hit with less and less water flowing through the riverway or into the lake.

On May 22 of this year, Mineral County District Attorney Sean Rowe would inform the Independent-News that a decision had finally been made in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals after years of litigation.

Stating the “public trust doctrine”, the question was brought forth whether the state could reallocate the water rights needed to restore the ecology of Walker Lake and if by doing so, harm those above stream that have existing water rights such as farmers and ranchers. Public trust doctrine states that “government has a responsibility to preserve and protect natural resources for the public.”

The question posed was closely noted to that of, “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?”

Should the ancient Walker Lake, remains of the prehistoric Lake Lahontan, be allowed to receive water or should a decree signed in 1924 hold precedence? That question was up to the court of appeals to decipher.

“[The] appeal presents an open and important question under Nevada law,” U.S. Circuit Judge Jay Bybee wrote in one of his opinion, issued last week. “We therefore respectfully request that the Supreme Court of Nevada accept and decide the question.”

Two other issues that were part of the complex litigation for Walker River was that the lower court erred in overturning a decision made by California and Nevada water officials. Another stated that the Walker River Paiute Tribe was wrongly dismissed for new water rights. Both of these cases have been reassigned.

Now it is up to Nevada Supreme Court to have the answer on water rights within the Walker Basin. The state has never openly addressed the “public trust doctrine” and in doing so – could affect other areas within the state in which these issues have harmed the environment.

Mineral County joined the Walker River fight in 1994 claiming that the county had a stake in how much water Walker Lake received each year.

The county was not granted a motion to intervene until 2013, nearly two decades later.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Rowe would state, “Mineral County is wanting the state to exercise its responsibility as the sovereign owner of the lake in the river system to maintain the ecological and aesthetic health.”

By giving the lake more water, it would mean that Walker River Irrigation District would have to cut existing water rights for farmers. In Nevada, surface water is regulated by a doctrine known as the “first in time, first in right”. This concept states that older claims to the water get the first priority. If the public trust is made in Walker Lake’s favor, it would supersede all other rights.

In 2015, District Court Judge Jones dismissed that claim. He stated that the county did not have any standing and the doctrine could not apply to existing rights.

“The remaining issue – whether the Walker River Decree can be amended to allow for certain minimum flows of water to reach Walker Lake – depends on whether the public trust doctrine applies to rights previously adjudicated and settled,” Bybee wrote in his opinion.

Neighboring Mono Lake in California was part of this discussion and in 1983 the California Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine did apply.

In 2002, Congress set aside funding for desert lakes such as Walker Lake. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation with this funding began purchasing water rights from farmers and ranchers. Those water rights were put to use to allow flow back into the lake.

Both the farmers and lake users benefited from this program. But this supposed “win-win” solution is only a small drop in the bucket. Walker Lake needs more water to restore the lake to a healthy level.

Farmers upstream worry about the drying up of fields, a problem that Mineral County has been slowly watching as the lake inched downward year after year.

Concerned for Mason Valley, Glenn Bunch, president of the Walker Lake Working Group told the Independent, “Well, we’re the dust bowl now [referring to Walker Lake]. We need to find a spot in the middle.”