Tahoe Weekly —
When government engineers penciled out how much water they could siphon out of Truckee River for the Newlands Project, they based it on wetter than normal winters and overestimated average water runoff. Once the Bureau of Reclamation began diverting the river at Derby Dam in 1906, water levels began falling downstream at Pyramid Lake, a Paiute reservation.
Pyramid Lake was a vital fishery for thousands of years, but the tribe had no legal rights to Truckee River water until 1908 when the U.S. Supreme Court determined that when the federal government established Indian reservations it implicitly reserved sufficient land and water to serve its purpose and that non-Indians could not interfere with a tribe’s reserved water. The precedent-setting decision also recognized prior appropriation rights for Western tribes.
The court’s opinion gave the Paiute the most senior claims on Truckee River dating back to 1859 when land for the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation was first set aside. To comply with the law the United States government promised the Paiute Tribe enough water to maintain its historic trout fishery at the river’s mouth. Sadly, like virtually every other treaty the government signed with Native Americans, it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.