Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe v. Nevada

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Water Rights
  • Date Filed: 07-30-2013
  • Case #: 11-16470; 11-16475; 11-16482
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Thomas for the Court; Circuit Judges Schroeder and Silverman
  • Full Text Opinion

Diversion of water to wetlands to support growth of plants used by wildlife in a waterfowl habitat is not “irrigation” for purposes of compliance with the federal court decree concerning water rights in the Newlands Project area in Nevada.

The Newlands Reclamation Project is a large area of western Nevada that receives diverted water flows from the Truckee and Carson rivers for irrigation. Water rights and usage for this area are governed by the United States v. Alpine Land & Reservoir Co. series of cases, eventually ending in the Alpine Decree. This Decree sets forth methods for determining consumptive and non-consumptive water duty amounts as part of a return-flow irrigation method and states that a party may transfer its consumptive use water rights for non-irrigation purposes, but non-consumptive water duties must remain in the river as part of the return-flow method. The Nevada Department of Wildlife and the Nevada Waterfowl Association filed applications seeking to transfer consumptive and non-consumptive rights from the Newlands Project to the Carson Lake and Pasture wildlife refuge, claiming that the wetlands restoration would be irrigation. However, the Pyramid Lake Tribe protested this proposed transfer. The State Engineer approved the transfer, and the district court vacated the approval. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the reasoning of the district court, finding that the purpose of the Newlands project and the Alpine Decree was to preserve water availability for agricultural use and to turn “wasteland into farmland.” Moreover, under Nevada law, “wildlife purposes” are distinct from "irrigation," and the panel found that this wetlands restoration would constitute a change from an “irrigation” to a “wildlife purpose.” Additionally, although the proposed transfer of water rights would not directly affect the Pyramid Lake Tribe, this diversion of water would increase the demand for water to which the tribe has rights and eventually lower their water supply, thus giving them proper standing in federal court. AFFIRMED.

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