Lake Tahoe Water Wars, Part II

Digging Truckee Canal, circa 1905. | Courtesy Churchill County Museum & Archive

Litigation over water rights in western Nevada began as early as 1864 on the Carson River and just a bit later the Truckee River when the first retaining dam was built at Lake Tahoe’s outlet. It was just the beginning of bi-state water wars between the Silver State and California, a volatile conflict that continued for well more than a century.

Read Part I.

Water rights will always be a hot topic in Nevada, the driest state in the Union, where cities, miners, farmers and ranchers compete for this limited natural resource. The fact that two-thirds of Lake Tahoe, as well as the lake’s only outlet, lies within California adds significant political juice to the hydrological battle.

Nevada secured water rights to Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River in litigation against California under the western water-law doctrine of prior appropriation. Two fundamental principles of prior appropriation are: first in time, first in right and beneficial use. First in time means that rights are awarded to the person, business or entity that first uses the water based on the date and puts it to beneficial use, such as for irrigating farmland, mining purposes or hydroelectric power generation.

In 1870, California engineer A.W. Von Schmidt planned to transport Tahoe water from the Truckee River in a series of tunnels, flumes, pipes and canals to San Francisco. In response to the proposal, Joe Goodman, editor of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, advised the Golden State developers to bring an escort of 20 militia regiments. “They will need them all,” Goodman warned, “for we will not submit to the proposed robbery.”

Nevada fought the diversion and successfully acquired rights to water in the Tahoe-Truckee system through the prior appropriation doctrine. They proved in federal court that the Silver State had diverted Truckee River water downstream for agricultural production prior to 1870. Under this law, it doesn’t matter how far upstream the user is, it’s the date of diversion for beneficial use that determines rights. Despite the legal setback, as well as opposition from California interests, Von Schmidt continued to resurrect his water scheme for years to no avail.

In 1889, a consortium of investors led by Nevada congressman Francis G. Newlands, purchased the decrepit Towle Brothers mill site — and its water rights — at the Donner Lake outlet. The company immediately replaced an old dam there with a new one that raised Donner Lake 20 feet for Nevada water storage. Homes on the east end of the lake had to be moved back 20 yards from the rising water.

Today Donner Lake is managed as a reservoir for Nevada with a small dam that creates about 9,500 acre-feet of storage during the spring and summer months. But in 1888, a logging company proposed a dam on Donner Lake nearly 100 feet high that would have easily doubled the size of the lake and impounded 22,205 acre-feet. That idea was unsuccessful, as well, but plans to exploit Lake Tahoe didn’t die. As recently as 1952, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed tapping Tahoe water with a tunnel through the Carson Range with storage held in Washoe Lake.

Engineer Von Schmidt’s plan to sell Tahoe water to San Francisco via the “grandest aqueduct in the world” was just one of many attempts to develop regional water assets. The fight for control of Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River watershed heated up again in 1899 when Nevada senator William M. Stewart proposed designating a Lake Tahoe National Park, where development would be restricted within its basin and all surplus water dedicated to irrigation and hydroelectric power generation for Reno homes and businesses. Although the national park proposal failed to become reality, local control of the Lake Tahoe Dam and the Truckee River was lost in the early 20th Century when ardent conservationist President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt signed the Federal Reclamation Act on June 17, 1902.

It was a bitterly fought legislation, hotly contested by Eastern states who naturally felt that it was a government subsidy to their agricultural competitors in the west. Funded by the sale of publicly-owned Western land, the law called for the construction of dams for the development of water storage linked with distribution networks to foster agriculture, ranching and hydroelectric power in arid regions. U.S. Rep. Newlands drafted the initial legislation, but it also ran into resistance from Western politicians concerned about giving up state control of water to the federal government. Ultimately, the most contentious issues were resolved and the law passed.

Keenly aware of Senator Newland’s enthusiasm, as well as the potential improvement of Nevada’s struggling economy, President Roosevelt wanted to see quick action on the new federal irrigation bill. With Newlands’ encouragement, top officials from the U.S. Reclamation Service visited Reno and Carson City where they promised that federal funds would be forthcoming for the financially depressed state. All Nevada’s government had to do was enact a statute that would subordinate the State Water Engineer’s Office to the new federal reclamation agency.

The full-court press worked and in early 1903 Nevada passed the requested water statute that gave the Feds the power to control Lake Tahoe and the Truckee and Carson river watersheds. When Roosevelt visited Carson City that year, he said that the state’s irrigation interests required a large forest reserve around Lake Tahoe to protect the vital watershed from logging, ranching and overgrazing. But the abundance of privately-owned land in the Tahoe Basin and California’s economic concerns about harming those industries stymied efforts in this regard.

Under the auspices of the Truckee-Carson Project, modern dams and reservoirs on the Truckee system were planned for Donner Lake, as well as Independence and Webber lakes. Built primarily for flood protection, Boca, Prosser and Stampede reservoirs would come later. On the Carson River, Long Valley and Hope Valley were targeted. The elaborate undertaking was dubbed Newlands Reclamation Project, which would provide Truckee and Carson River water to four western Nevada counties: Washoe, Churchill, Storey and Lyon. The main linchpin to this complex water transport system was a new canal to siphon water from the Truckee River via the Derby Dam — built 20 miles downstream of Reno — and transfer it to the Carson River, about 32 miles south.

Completed in 1905, the Truckee Canal was constructed using primitive wooden plows pulled by horse and mule. This berm and trench conveyance still transports high-quality drinking and irrigation water from the Truckee River to the distant lower Carson River Basin. Incredibly, one of the principal products provided by this hijacked water is dehydrated milk — all of which is sold to China.

Read Part III in the next edition or at TheTahoeWeekly.com; click on History under the Explore Tahoe menu.