Sunday, January 16, 2011

Oasis Part 2

Oasis: Squeezing Water Out Of A Rock

Part 2: Cui-Uis and Indians

Pyramid Lake is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Named after the large pyramid like rock formation on one of its islands, the lake is a testament to another time. The road to it is a straight shot through dense sagebrush and rocky hills. If one looks closely on the way there, it is possible to see deer, antelope, coyotes, or wild horses in the mountains. A subtle motion in the brush. Minutes before arriving at the lake, it seems like the high desert and rocky formations will go on forever; a futile journey into a forbidding land. Then the mountains open up and a crisp blue appears; refreshing to the eyes, quenching a visual thirst for water. When an exploration group first came through, they were greeted by the friendly Paiute Indian Tribe. The explorers sat and ate with the tribe—a dinner of fish and local plants—and noticed that the Lake spilled forth an astounding abundance. When food ran out, the Indians would walk down to the shore, spear an enormous Cui-ui or Lahontan Trout and bring it to the fire to cook. There was no scarcity in those days. Pyramid Lake, Washoe Lake, the forests on top of Peavine all were still there.

It was also a fairly moist time historically. In the 19th and 20th centuries, rainfall and run-off for the Western United States was the highest it had been for several centuries. The Truckee Meadows were fairly lush in terms of desert for this time and it was no wonder that a few people would like to settle here. Reno gets over 300 days of sun on average, the Truckee River runs year-round, it has mild winters, and the low humidity makes even the hottest days bearable. The area has sweeping vistas that accentuate the breathtaking nature of a land with spectacular sunsets. Reno is not a hard place to live in. And so the region grew, and has grown—a lot.

In 1955 when Winnemucca Lake dried up, the Indians made the decision to divert their allotment of water to Pyramid Lake instead of Winnemucca Lake. Pyramid, a slightly saline lake, is home to the state fish the Lahontan Trout and the sacred Cui-ui (pronounced kwee-wee). The decision to keep all the water from the Truckee dedicated to Pyramid Lake was extremely last ditch, Pyramid was drying up rapidly, losing huge amounts of water to the desert air. The island that Pyramid Rock was on was now a peninsula; the tribe was desperate. Even with all the water going to Pyramid, the lake was still drying up and the TCID would not budge on their apportionment of water. Alvin Josephy Jr. chronicled the events leading up to this mess in his excellent article “Here In Nevada, A Terrible Crime”. Suffice it to say that the Indians could not requisition enough water for the lake and the Cui-ui became endangered. The Lahontan had already suffered a far worse fate.

The original variety of the Lahontan Trout is one of the largest trout known to man. There are historical photos showing fish four feet in length being pulled from the Truckee River. Derby Dam, the dam at the mouth of Lake Tahoe, and Hunter Creek Dam, along with overfishing and poor water allocation, killed off the entire population of Lahontan Trout. Traditional spawning routes, competition from introduced species, and poorly timed water diversions turned the population into a joke. By 1943, the large lake variety, the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, was extinct. Another variety of the species, one that didn't grow as big and wasn't nearly as awe-inspiring, was transplanted from Lake Heenan and introduced to the Truckee River water system. They are currently maintained by fish hatcheries and do not do their traditional spawning runs. The Lahontan Cutthroat Trout is effectively extinct.

In 1970, Pyramid Lake was evaporating at a rate of over 1 ft per year. The shore had retreated over 80 ft and the Paiute tribe was desperate for a solution. They sued the Department of the Interior in the 1970s, and entered into a long battle over water rights, that—while not fully settled—did give the tribe enough water to maintain the lake's levels. Their battle was over for the time being; a new battle was brewing.

Next: the Boom, Water, and climate change.