The Nevada Supreme Court will decide the water right conflict between Lyon County farmers and those downstream.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has remanded the case between Mineral County and other agencies such as: the Walker River Irrigation District, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and Lyon County. The case is set to be heard by the Nevada Supreme Court.
The case challenges whether the Walker River Decree can be amended to allow minimum flows into Walker Lake, even if it happens to harm those who have water rights upstream.
According to the court of appeals, this issue “depends on whether the public trust doctrine applies to rights previously adjudicated and settled under the doctrine of prior appropriation and permits alteration of prior allocations.” The public trust doctrine holds that the State of Nevada must act as a trustee for the public’s interest in certain natural resources that it owns, such as Walker Lake. “This is an important question of Nevada water law we believe should be decided by the Nevada Supreme Court.”
The Walker River Basin covers approximately 4,000 square miles. The east and west Walker Rivers originate in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Mono County, Calif. and terminate in Walker Lake, located within Mineral County, Nev. The east and west Walker Rivers merge in Lyon County, Nev.
At the present time, Walker Lake is about 13 miles long, five miles wide and 90 feet deep. The lake has drastically shrunk since it was first measured in 1882 and in 1996 had just 50 percent of its 1882 surface area and 28 percent of its volume. To date, the lake has high concentrations of total dissolved solids (TDS) – high salt content, low oxygen content and a high temperature. It cannot maintain a fishery with these levels.
It is believed that this is due to in part by the nearly 100-year-old system that has been diverting water from the lake for that of irrigation purposes. The Walker River Decree was established in 1936 and decided water rights of hundreds of people from the Walker River headwater’s to the lake with the doctrine of prior appropriation (the first person to take the water has the right to continue to take that same amount.)
In the suit to be heard by the Supreme Court, Mineral County states that the high TDS concentrations have eliminated the fishing industry and threatens the lake’s home for migratory birds such as loons.
Mineral County also believes that due to the TDS and low water levels that the recreational purposes of the lake has declined.