Reclamation Act transforms water rights for Lake Tahoe, Truckee River

Illegal trench at Tahoe Dam, circa 1930. | California Dept. Water Resources

In January 1900, Nevada Congressman Francis Newlands sponsored a measure for the federal government to provide water for irrigation in arid regions throughout the western United States. The bill ran into resistance from politicians concerned about giving up state control of water to the federal government, but ultimately the most contentious issues were resolved and the law passed. President William McKinley did not support the far-reaching proposal that challenged states’ rights, but after his assassination in September 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took charge and signed off on the 1902 Reclamation Act.

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Passage of the Reclamation Act set in motion a dramatic transformation in the American West to reclaim vast areas of undeveloped acreage by using irrigated water to convert barren tracts into productive agricultural farmland. From 1893 to 1897 a severe national recession had impeded efforts by the U.S. government to fund new spending programs, particularly reclamation irrigation projects, but the new legislation kicked open the door for a massive change for federal control of water rights. Ultimately the policy would lead to the damming and diversion of virtually every river in the western United States including the Truckee, Carson and Walker rivers in the central Sierra.

Another potentially violent clash between Tahoe residents and the Nevada crew was narrowly averted when a deputy sheriff issued a cease-and-desist order to the steam-shovel operator.

Francis Newlands was instrumental in getting the Reclamation Act through Congress and his name became synonymous with the legislation. The Newlands Act set historic precedent in several important ways: irrigation projects would be funded by the sale of public lands in separate states and all powers involving irrigation were nationalized. The act also embraced the entire region of the American West, disregarding state boundaries, overriding state governments and bypassing the legislative appropriations process. The nationalization of hydrological resources was intended to encourage rapid development and theoretically preempt interstate conflicts like the contentious issues between California and Nevada. But discord would continue for decades.

Historic plaque at Tahoe Dam. | Mark McLaughlin

Because Newlands had crafted the bill and expertly shepherded it through numerous Congressional committee hearings, his Nevada district was rewarded with the first federal reclamation project. The Newlands Irrigation Project on the Truckee and Carson rivers was the precursor to future western water storage mega-projects such as the Hoover, Glen Canyon and Oroville dams. In 1903, the Department of the Interior notified California and Nevada officials that the federal government would be assuming the right to control the water stored in Lake Tahoe behind the dam. Newlands’ legislation had unleashed the power of the federal government and upped the ante in the battle over Tahoe water.

Controlling the Tahoe Dam
The appropriation of water rights and infrastructure development began quickly, but the Bureau of Reclamation had a big problem. The linchpin to the project was Lake Tahoe, the largest reservoir in the Truckee River drainage, but control of the Tahoe Dam was still in private hands. During the first decade of the 20th Century there was rapid consolidation of the many small and private water and power companies — and their water rights — associated with Truckee River, with the Bureau of Reclamation prominent in the melee. The bureau may have claimed Tahoe’s water, but without authority over the outlet dam, reliable delivery of water to Nevada farmers was questionable. In 1908 another utility acquired assets of the Truckee River General Electric Company, which owned title to the dam at that point. Conflict erupted between the federal government, General Electric and riparian owners at Lake Tahoe, all of which had competing interests in management of water levels.

In 1909 the Bureau of Reclamation proposed a tunnel through the Carson Range that would drain water from Lake Tahoe through a hydroelectric generating plant and on to a large reservoir to be constructed at Washoe Lake in Nevada. Fierce legal pushback by the State of California and Tahoe lakeshore property owners ultimately squelched the plan, but as recently as 1952 the agency again proposed tapping Tahoe water with a tunnel through the Carson Range with storage held in Washoe Lake.

After the dry winter of 1912, the Bureau of Reclamation attempted to dredge Truckee River channel and excavate Lake Tahoe’s natural rim to release more water. Lakeshore property owners blocked the scheme with a court injunction. In 1924, a group of Truckee Meadows farmers threatened to dynamite the rim.

The development of snow surveying by Dr. James Church helped water managers anticipate seasonal snowmelt, but during a severe drought in the 1920s and 1930s, Lake Tahoe fell below its rim on and off for eight consecutive years and Truckee River turned into a trickle. To satisfy downstream demand, large pumps were installed at the Tahoe Dam and over several years more than 117,000-acre feet of water was sucked from the lake. Newspapers reported that Tahoe residents were intent on sabotaging the pumps. Armed confrontations were barely averted between locals and hired hands doing the bidding of farmers in Fallon.

One August night in 1930, Nevada water interests sent a steam shovel under police escort to the dam to dig a trench around it. Another potentially violent clash between Tahoe residents and the Nevada crew was narrowly averted when a deputy sheriff issued a cease-and-desist order to the steam-shovel operator. Tahoe locals stood guard at the dam all night as rumors spread that Nevadans were conspiring to blast an opening in the natural rim. The following night, the steam shovel was vandalized and the newly dug ditch ultimately filled back in. A court injunction soon put a stop to Nevada’s brazen but illegal attempts to bypass the dam.

Donner Lake a casualty
Donner Lake became an early environmental casualty in the race to secure water storage in the Tahoe Sierra. In 1889, a consortium of investors led by Newlands purchased the water rights of the rundown Towle Brothers mill site at the Donner Lake outlet. The company 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 60 feet 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. The stored water is drained before winter to make room for flood protection.

It could have been worse. In 1888, a logging company proposed a huge dam on Donner Lake nearly 100 feet high that would have doubled its size and impounded 22,205 acre-feet. (The average California household uses between one-half and one acre-foot of water per year for indoor and outdoor use.) Modern dams and reservoirs on the Truckee River system were implemented for Tahoe and Donner Lake, as well as Independence and Webber lakes. Built primarily for flood protection, Boca, Prosser and Stampede reservoirs would come later.

Read Part V