U.S. fights state for tribal water rights
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FRIDAY, MAY 24, 2002

The Supreme Court is set to decide whether the state of Nevada can divert more water from a prized desert lake over the objections of the federal government and a tribe fighting to save a sacred species of fish.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2001 sided with the United States and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. In a split decision, a three-judge panel ruled that a Nevada official improperly rejected "substantial evidence" provided in opposition to a proposed water diversion project.

The state and a local water district now want that decision overturned. In a February 6 petition, they asked the Supreme Court to let the findings of the state engineer stand, a move which would enable the disputed transfer to move forward.

Earlier this month, the Bush administration and the tribe filed arguments in opposition to the state's challenge. The case is "not yet ripe" for review, according to May 7 Department of Justice brief, because the appeals court sent the case back to a federal judge for further consideration.

At issue is relatively small amount of water, about 280 acre-feet. But since the transfer would affect Pyramid Lake, described as one of the most beautiful desert bodies of water in North America, the tribe is concerned about the impact on the cui-ui, a type of sucker fish.

Considered sacred to the tribe, the fish is listed as endangered under federal law. Efforts to improve its dwindling numbers are hampered because of the lake's low water levels.

Located entirely within the borders of the tribe's reservation, the lake is fed by the Truckee River. However, irrigation projects and drought have taken water the fish would need to thrive.

For that reason, the 9th Circuit ruling represented a victory. Although the tribe and the U.S. were challenging only one water transfer, there is the potential for future diversions and additional court battles.

"Water litigation is a weed that flowers in the arid West," wrote Circuit Judge William A. Fletcher for the majority last year.

The plaintiffs in the case are the state of Nevada and the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District. The town of Fenley is seeking the 280 acre-feet transfer.

The opposition brief was drafted by Solicitor General Ted Olson, assistant attorney general Thomas Sansonnetti and two Justice attorneys.

The Supreme Court reviewed the case in a conference session yesterday.

Get the Case;
US v. ORR WATER DITCH, CO., No 99-16812 (9th Cir. July 05, 2001)

Related Documents:
DOJ Brief | Docket Sheet: No. 01-1224 | Docket Sheet: No. 01-1226

Relevant Links:
Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe -

Related Stories:
Tribe wins round in water rights fight (7/6)