As the Truckee River tumbles to a trickle, one of the West’s longest-running water negotiations faces its final legal hurdles. Drought or no, managing our water resources has been as delicate as the desert water cycle. The Truckee’s water law machinations have ended some political careers while providing many a savvy lawyer with permanent employment.
Outlasting them all has been Sen. Harry Reid, who entered the fray in 1987 with his “Negotiated Water Settlement.” Reid’s self-appointed task was to right the wrongs of century-old water planning, overly optimistic water forecasts, and the intricate puzzle that is Truckee River water rights. The Truckee River Operating Agreement—or TROA—brings flexibility and sense to a river system that had to deliver water based on ancient court decrees rather than the natural realities of our mountain and desert environment.
Reid launched the effort on election night 1986 when he was elected to the Senate, pledging to settle the northern Nevada water wars whose resolution had defied other officials for much of a century. Indeed, even as Reid made his promise, the man he would replace in the Senate, Paul Laxalt, was trying and failing to enact a measure to settle the Truckee’s future.
Reid’s negotiations went on for years and made his name a dirty word among Churchill County farmers, but he persevered. Progress came steadily, in incremental steps and interim stages.
The historic final piece of Reid’s settlement was presented this month at several public hearings in Northern Nevada. The Bureau of Reclamation presented its draft environmental-impact statement, which analyzes the management strategies and tactics that will drastically change the way we operate the reservoirs, dams and diversions along the 110-mile watershed.
The TROA strikes a permanent deal among the five mandatory parties: the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, the states of California and Nevada, the United States and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, plus a number of other parties including Washoe County, Sparks and Reno. Most important, the TROA will protect the quantity and quality of the Truckee Meadows’ primary water supply from future legal actions from the river’s “Big Five” that could take away the benefits of a more flexible program. Water lawsuits typically take around 10 years to wend their way through federal courts. Some of the older lawsuits were 50 years old.
Here are some of the TROA’s other key benefits:
• Triples drought year water storage for the Truckee Meadows, which should meet the needs of the next 30 years of growth.
• Protects existing water supply by finalizing the interstate allocation between Nevada and California.
• Ensures a future for two fish species, the unique and endangered cui-ui fish of Pyramid Lake and the restored population of threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout.
• Ends years of litigation by disposing of current lawsuits.
• Protects Truckee River water quality by requiring minimum in-stream flows during drought years.
Steve Bradhurst, former Washoe County commissioner and current director of the Washoe County Department of Water Resources, said the agreement will protect our supplies and water quality against future legal actions that could take away these benefits. It also codifies a gentlemen’s agreement on allocating the Truckee—one marked only by a handshake between then-Govs. Ronald Reagan and Paul Laxalt in 1969 and never ratified by Congress.
“Once and for all we settle the allocation between Nevada and California,” Bradhurst said. “It is also a plan that is a necessity for the health of the Truckee River as far as stream environment and water quality.”
There has been a long-standing irony in the way we have operated the Truckee River. Despite our desert locale, we lived under the 1935 Truckee River Agreement and the 1944 Orr Ditch decree. Together these told the federal water managers that they had to release enough water from upstream reservoirs to make sure that at least 400 of 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) pulsed through the canyons near Floriston, Calif.
So, if a water right holder—let’s say the Truckee River Water Authority—really didn’t need that water, it couldn’t hold back its allotment for future credits when it might have a greater need. The TROA changes that. In effect, it is like a really good cellular-phone plan. If we don’t use the water, we can roll over the rights and get credit for it later.
Key to that credit program is Stampede Reservoir. Completed in 1969 as part of the Washoe Project, the 225,000-acre-foot reservoir was to provide water for irrigation, flood control, municipal and industrial use. However, the Department of the Interior, fueled by protests from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, changed that use to protect spawning runs of the endangered cui-cui and threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout.
The project was challenged in court, but the Supreme Court let the Interior Department’s management tactics stand, and Stampede was used for fish, not people.
The TROA allows Stampede water storage to be used for more than just fish, up to 39,000 acre feet as established by Reid’s Public Law 101-618, signed by the president in 1990.
Earlier that same year, state legislation was passed that ended the illegal status of water meters in Reno-Sparks, calling for new homes to abide by the radical notion of paying for the water they use. TMWA has also moved forward with efforts to retrofit flat-rate homes with meters, now that users have the incentive of higher flat rates.
The TROA lets everyone play the credit storage game, according to John Erwin, director of resource planning and development for TMWA.
“Today you might be seeing more water in the river for fish flows and even water quality if the TROA was in place,” Erwin said “It provides more flexibility in the river and our reservoirs.”
However, conspicuously absent from the TROA and settlement is the Truckee Carson Irrigation District which has delivered Truckee and Carson River water to the farmers in Fallon and Fernley through the century old Newlands Project. They have held that the settlement offers them nothing in return for reduced deliveries through the Truckee River Canal. Several settlement parties expect that the TCID will proffer a lawsuit as the draft EIS winds it way through the public-hearing process.For more information on TROA, visit the Bureau of Reclamation web site at www.usbr.gov/mp/troa.