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“Here In Nevada A Terrible Crime …”

July 2024
20min read

The shore line of Pyramid Lake, one of the West's great natural wonders, is steadily receding, robbed of the water it needs by a Bureau of Reclamation irrigation project.

On January 10, 1844, Lieutenant John C. Frémont of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, exploring southward from Oregon at the head of a party of twenty-five men, reached the summit of a range of barren hills in present-day northwestern Nevada and sighted a large body of water in the desert, “a sheet of green” breaking “upon our eyes like the ocean.” “The waves were curling in the breeze,” he reported, “and their dark-green color showed it to be a body of deep water. For a long time we sat enjoying the view. … It was set like a gem in the mountains.”

Frémont and his men found a well-used Indian trail and, following it south along the eastern shore of the great inland lake, passed herds of mountain sheep, flocks of ducks, and odd tufa formations—calcium carbonate deposits precipitated from the water along the lake edge mostly by the timeless action of algae and waves, and resembling castles, domes, and needles of varicolored stone. One of them particularly, an island rising almost three hundred feet above the surface of the water, caught their fancy. It “presented a pretty exact outline of the great pyramid of Cheops,” Frémont said. “This striking feature suggested a name for the lake, and I called it Pyramid Lake.”

At the south end of the lake the explorers found a village of Northern Paiute Indians who greeted them in friendship and brought them great quantities of fish—“magnificent salmon trout,” said Frémont’s cartographer, Charles Preuss, who wrote in his diary, “I gorged myself until I almost choked.” The fish were giant Lahontan cutthroat trout, a species found in no other part of the world. “Their flavor was excellent,” Frémont reported, “superior, in fact, to that of any fish I have ever known. They were of extraordinary size—about as large as the Columbia River salmon—generally from two to four feet in length.” There were ample supplies of them, taken from the lake and a river that flowed into it, and the Indians, whom Frémont noted “appeared to live an easy and happy life,” gave the newcomers “a salmontrout feast as is seldom seen … every variety of manner in which fish could be prepared—boiled, fried, and roasted in the ashes—was put into requisition; and every few minutes an Indian would be seen running off to spear a fresh one.”

That was a century and a quarter ago. To the modern-day visitor who catches his first sight of the huge body of water in the desert, Pyramid Lake is still as breathtakingly dramatic as it was to Frémont. Shaped like a partly opened fan, a little more than thirty miles long on its north-south axis, some eleven miles wide at its broadest expanse in the north and less than four miles wide in the south, it lies in a long, hidden basin in northwestern Nevada near the California border. Ranges of barren mountains, rising as high as four thousand feet above the water, surround the lake, descending toward it in steep declines and long, sloping benches and flats covered with sagebrush and other desert plants. On the south the mountains conceal the lake from travellers hurrying by on the east-west railroad or Interstate 80, as well as from the growing urban centers of Reno and Sparks, only thirty miles to the southwest.

The color of the lake, deep blue, green, or gray, changes to reflect the hues of the desert sky but depends also on the density and movement of concentrations of plankton in its waters. Along the shore there are still few signs of development or of man’s presence, and the great sheet of water and hills around it are overwhelmingly quiet save for the sounds of wildlife. California gulls, Caspian terns, and blue herons flap and soar across the sky. Ducks ride the swells, and approximately 7,500 white pelicans, probably the largest colony of that species in North America, nest on Anaho Island, a 750-acre National Wildlife Refuge three hundred yards off the eastern shore. The curled-horned mountain sheep that Frémont saw are gone, but coyotes, mule deer, jack rabbits, and bobcats are abundant, as are armies of ground squirrels, lizards, and other rodents and reptiles that make their home in the desert cover.

The National Park Service has called Pyramid Lake “the most beautiful desert lake in the United States. … perhaps the most beautiful of its kind in North America”; conservationists and lovers of outdoor beauty regard its wild solitudes as one of the few remaining unspoiled natural wonders in the American West; and the state of Nevada touts the lake as among its prized attractions for tourists and sportsmen. Yet today the lake is threatened with wanton destruction, the victim of a uniquely unsavory case of the plundering of natural resources.

A remnant of a larger prehistoric body of water known as Lake Lahontan that filled much of the western Great Basin during the Ice Age, Pyramid Lake has only one principal source of water, the Truckee River, which starts at Lake Tahoe in the High Sierras on the Nevada-California border, almost one hundred miles to the southwest. Pyramid has a maximum depth of about 335 feet, and no outlet, but it loses approximately 147 billion gallons, or about four and a half feet, of water a year by evaporation. It receives a small amount of water from underground sources, from surface runoff, and from occasional desert rains; but in the main it has depended on the Truckee River, which historically kept it at a somewhat fixed level.

In 1905, however, the Reclamation Service of the Department of the Interior built Derby Dam across the Truckee twenty miles east of Reno, diverting part of the river away from Pyramid Lake and into a government irrigation project in the Nevada desert around present-day Fallen (see map, page 96). Since then, for sixty-five years, Pyramid Lake has received only that water which Derby Dam did not divert for the irrigation project (known now as the Newlands Project, for Nevada’s reclamation-minded Senator Francis G. Newlands).

The results at the lake have been as dramatic as they were predictable. The great sheet of water has dropped an average of one and a fourth feet a year for a total so far of more than eighty feet. Its shoreline recedes an average of ten feet a year; a sister body of water, Lake Winnemucca, once also about thirty miles long and fed by overflow water from Pyramid Lake, has entirely dried up and disappeared. Pyramid Lake’s length has shrunk by several miles, and its surface area has contracted by more than fifty square miles. Frémont’s pyramid, now rising 365 feet above the lake, is no longer an island but is connected to the shore; and Anaho Island, facing the same prospect, will surely lose its famed pelicans, once coyotes and other predators can cross on dry land to the rookeries.

At the south end of the lake sandbars almost clog the mouth of the Truckee, so that fish can no longer get up the river to spawn. As a result, the unique giant Lahontan cutthroats described by Frémont—once so numerous that Pyramid was world-famous as a fishery, containing probably the biggest concentration of large fish of any body of water on the continent —disappeared from the lake about 1938. Another fish, known as the cui-ui (pronounced kwee-wee ) and also found nowhere else on earth, is still abundant in the lake. A valuable food fish, growing up to nine pounds, it too now faces extinction.

The lake may never vanish altogether; someday it will have shrunk small enough, probably to about 70 per cent of its present size, that the inflow can equal the decreased evaporation and stabilize the lake’s level. But by then, some hydrologists maintain, the water will be too saline for fish, and Pyramid will be a dead salt lake, or so close to it that its preservation, even at that level, will no longer be worthwhile. The Bureau of Reclamation, which still must see that Truckee River water is diverted to the irrigation project that it built, does not admit to this ultimate prospect but suggests only that as Pyramid Lake’s level declines and its salinity increases, “there will be some change in the fishery.”

All those facts, however, dismal as they may be to those who would save a great natural wonder from destruction, do not, unfortunately, give an inkling of the full—and truly searing—dimensions of what is involved.

“This is one of the blackest pages in the history of American fisheries and represents what must be close to the ultimate in greed and lack of foresight, ” said Thomas J. Trelease, an official of the Nevada Fish and Game Commission, in 1967. It is “a grim, humiliating sermon in selfishness on one hand and public apathy on the other.”

What he was underscoring was the fact that the lake just happens to belong to a small and impoverished tribe of American Indians—some nine hundred members of the Pyramid Lake tribe of Northern Paiutes, descendants of the people who welcomed Frémont in 1844. As Frémont noted, they were people who lived principally on fish, and in 1859 the federal government set aside the lake for them as the main part of an otherwise barren reservation, with the intent that it serve as their major means of existence. Through the years federal courts confirmed the lake as the Indians’ property, and the tribe kept it unspoiled. When the government in 1905 began to divert water from the lake, therefore, it not only took from the Indians something that was legally theirs, but threw into jeopardy the Paiutes’ very livelihood.

No one in 1905 appears to have considered what would happen to the reservation or to the people who lived on it, once their water was taken from them. No one consulted the Indians or asked them for the water—despite the fact that with first-priority water rights, going back to 1859, they could have claimed adequate water for the lake. No one even told them that the water was going to be taken. In plain words, the water was stolen from them in an all-too-common repetition of a fate suffered by other tribes in the arid West.

Ironically, moreover, the action on the Truckee River in 1905 was carried out by the same agency of the federal government charged by law to protect the Indians’ rights and property, the Department of the Interior. Voiceless and powerless in a white man’s world, the Paiutes were in every sense of the word wards of the government. But when Nevada’s political leaders asked Congress to authorize the irrigation project, the Department of the Interior raised not a murmur in defense of the Indians’ water. In a conflict between the interests of the Indians and those of the white farmers who were “opening up” the West, the department’s solicitors turned their backs on the “vanishing race.”

That might have been the end of the story, except that the Pyramid Lake Paiutes did not vanish. In the 1960’s the Indians, gaining new voice, unity, and self-assertiveness, began an eleventh-hour fight to save their lake. That struggle, still being waged, is based essentially on a Supreme Court ruling made for other tribes. In 1908 and again in 1963 the Court decided that when the United States government established Indian reservations, it also reserved, by implication, sufficient water in any streams running through a reservation to carry out the purposes of that reservation. Under this so-called Winters’ Doctrine (after the name of the 1908 case), the Pyramid Lake Reservation had a first-priority right to all the water necessary for its purposes.

But to date the Department of the Interior, still responding to the Bureau of Reclamation and Nevada’s non-Indian pressures rather than to the Paiutes’ rights, has compounded its original dereliction of responsibility by refusing to undertake court action for the Indians, and the latter have neither the financial means nor the hydrological and other technical expertise necessary to go to court on their own. Moreover, they have been kept on the defensive by an unending series of maneuvers on the part of white water users designed to prevent them, or the federal government as their trustee, from ever going to court for more water for Pyramid Lake. A tangle of decrees, statutes, regulations, and water rights and laws have been used to deceive and thwart them, while the Department of the Interior claims that its hands are tied and does nothing.

The Indians view the tortuous fight for their lake not just as a struggle for what rightfully belongs to them but as a matter of life and death. “Land without water is like a body without blood,” says their tribal leader, thirty-two-year-old James Vidovich, an electrical worker and descendant of a Paiute who received the family’s surname from a Yugoslav employer. Vidovich lives with some five hundred members of his tribe just south of where the Truckee flows into Pyramid Lake. His people, energetic and self-reliant, have had long association with the whites; save when a trip to town or other occasion calls for a suit, the Indians dress in jeans, boots, and wide-brimmed hats like most other persons in the outdoor areas of Nevada. Their reservation today comprises a total of 475,086 acres and includes the lake itself (which presently covers 107,900 acres), a band of barren and mountainous country entirely surrounding it, and a panhandle of land extending about seventeen miles along the lower Truckee. Two small towns, Nixon, where the tribal headquarters are located, and Wadsworth, lie in the panhandle.

Although most of the Indians’ land is arid, with irrigation some of the strip south of the lake can be farmed and grazed. So far the Indians have opened somewhat fewer than eight hundred acres of bottom land to irrigation, principally for raising hay for cattle and horses; but the tribe has been unable to afford to irrigate the higher land, and the federal government has yet to grant financial assistance, despite its promise to do so. Moreover, the Paiutes at heart are not farmers or stockmen.

Thus the lake, with its cui-ui and artificially planted fish which must be periodically restocked, is still their major resource, and along with the fish for food, it now provides 75 per cent of their tribal income through the sale of fishing and boating permits to whites. (Other income is derived from cattle and from part-time jobs on ranches or in the cities. Still, in 1967 almost 70 per cent of the Pyramid Lake Paiutes were unemployed, and 52 per cent of their families had incomes under $2,000 a year.) And should the lake be preserved, there is a new promise for the future: the orderly development of shorefront recreation facilities, strictly controlled by the tribe in limited areas on the lake, can, according to a recent survey, provide steady jobs for the unemployed and make the reservation economically self-sustaining. Outside capital is available for such development, but not for a lake whose shoreline is gradually declining. And so, as the money waits for the lake’s decline to be halted, the Paiutes have been pressing their case.

Their principal rival for the Truckee’s water, the Newlands Project, was originally planned to irrigate 232,800 acres of desert with water from the Truckee, and another 137,000 acres with water from the Carson River, which runs somewhat parallel to, and south of, the Truckee. The available supply of water, however, was grossly overestimated, and since its inception, the project has never had more than 50,000–60,000 acres under irrigation with water from both rivers. Sixty-five years after its beginning, the project today looks like an old, settled farm area, with many grassy pastures, fields, gardens, and stands of trees, all watered by canals, and new and old barns and farm and ranch houses shaded by trees and fronting on the highways and secondary roads that lace the district. Except at its edges, where the project borders on sagebrush desert and muddy flats where temporary flooding occurs, a visitor might imagine he was almost anywhere in the rural Midwest.

Altogether, the water diverted from the Truckee to the project serves about 1,025 farms on which dwell approximately 5,800 people. The farmers produce mainly alfalfa and hay for cattle; some barley, wheat, and other grains; corn silage; and a small amount of vegetables and fruits, including potatoes and melons. In the winter thousands of cattle and sheep are brought in from the ranges to be fattened for market. In addition, some farmers maintain dairy herds, raise turkeys and other poultry, and keep bees. Most of the people, typically industrious, middle-income farm families, live on the lands of the project, but many who own uneconomic one- and two-acre lots with water rights lease their land to bigger operators and live in Fallen. The latter, with a population close to three thousand, is the principal shopping and marketing town on the project and, except for a garish gambling casino, might, with its wide streets and easy, friendly pace, pass for any county seat in the agricultural West.

The average gross crop value of the Newlands Project amounts to no more than $4,500,000 per year, and from 1909 until 1965 the value of all crops produced during those fifty-six years totalled only $104,500,000. These figures assume significance when matched as achievements of “progress” against what is being denied to the Indians. If the decline of the lake were halted and recreational facilities built on its shores, for instance, it is estimated that recreational income at the lake would soon exceed the annual crop value of the irrigation project and that within fifteen years this income would increase to more than three times the annual value of the project.

Most people on the project are not unsympathetic to the plight of Pyramid Lake, but they argue bitterly that they and their families have long since acquired legal rights to the water, and it is just too bad if there is not enough in the Truckee for the lake as well. One of the largest landowners on the project, Carl F. Dodge, a Nevada state senator whose 1,400 acres have been owned by his family for fifty years, reflects the attitude of many. If the water is more valuable for the purpose of keeping Pyramid Lake alive than for keeping the project’s farms fertile, Dodge said, “then let them buy the water rights and take them over. All I can say about it is if they feel that way, money talks.”

No one, as yet anyhow, believes that such a course is economically or, in Nevada, politically practicable. Ranchers and farmers form a powerful element in the state’s political life, and with few areas in Nevada able to support agriculture, it is a safe bet that the state would vigorously resist permitting one of its biggest and richest agricultural districts to return to desert. Moreover, the farms are no longer the only users of the project’s water. Through the years, “tailwater” draining off the farms built up previously existing marshes in the adjoining desert. Like Pyramid Lake, these became the habitat of large flocks of ducks and other waterfowl and attracted gun clubs. At the same time, other waste water created a partly irrigated pasture, which farmers of the project put to use as a common grazing ground. In 1948 the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service made a pact with the irrigators on the Newlands Project and Nevada’s Fish and Game Commission. Out of the waterfowl marshlands were created the Stillwater Wildlife Management area (a public shooting ground) and the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge (a protected area), and the Interior Department also agreed to develop and improve the pasture. Once established, both the wildlife area and the pasture became recognized “users” of Truckee water. The effect up to now, therefore, has been to provide water for Stillwater ducks and project cows, while continuing to deny it to the Indians and Pyramid Lake. And in still another development a large storage reservoir built on the project has begun to thrive as a recreational center. The very water diverted away from the Indians’ lake is now being used by whites for recreation on an artificial lake less than thirty-five miles away.

All of this must be reckoned with by the Indians in their late-hour attempt to save Pyramid Lake, and it is further complicated by non-Indian users of water upstream from the lake on both the Truckee and the Carson. The number of these users, including other farmers as well as domestic and industrial interests around Reno, has increased greatly since 1905, and not surprisingly their competitive claims to the limited supply of water have grown more complex. But the Paiutes’ determined fight is beginning to loom as an ominous threat to all non-Indian users—capable, perhaps, of unsettling many, if not all, of the established water rights on the two rivers. The result has been to increase white irritation with the Paiutes. Battle lines have been sharply defined, and added pressure has been brought on both the state government and the Bureau of Réclamation by the white farmers and ranchers to see to it that their water rights are safeguarded.

On the Truckee those rights were firmly established in 1944 by a federal district court decision known as the Orr Water Ditch Company decree. The Department of the Interior did represent the Paiutes at that time but actually worsened the Indians’ position by permitting what amounted to the legalization of Pyramid Lake’s destruction. The Winters’ Doctrine (the 1908 Supreme Court decision) had been in existence for nearly forty years; the department clearly had the opportunity to right an old wrong by insisting on a court grant of adequate water for the lake. But the department asked for no water right at all for the lake, and it got none. The decree gave the Indians a right to only a meager amount of water, but with the provision that it could be used only for irrigation or stock and domestic purposes. (The department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to turn the Paiutes into farmers.) Moreover, the amount of water which they could draw was based on how much land they had under irrigation, and since to this day they have been able to irrigate only a strip along the bottomlands, they have never had the legal right to draw more than a fifth of the water granted to them—and none of it, legally, could be used for Pyramid Lake!

In actuality, Pyramid Lake continued to receive water from springs and underground sources below Derby Darn, from leaks in the dam and the first section of the project’s canal, and particularly from floodwater which the Newlands Project could not use and which was released from the dam to the lower Truckee. Under the Orr Ditch decree, however, the Indians had no right even to the floodwater, and so in 1955, when the Bureau of Reclamation announced plans to build flood-control dams on the headwaters of the Truckee and Carson rivers, it stated specifically that none of the project’s water would be made available to the Indians. This was too much for the Paiutes. On their own, they took their case to the Interior and Insular Affairs committees of both the House and Senate, which were then considering the Washoe Project, of which the new flood-control dams were a part. Both committees responded with reports that noted officially for the first time that Pyramid Lake’s crisis was due largely to acts of the federal government, and that the government had never undertaken compensatory measures to maintain the fishery of the lake and now ought to do so. When the bill authorizing the project passed Congress on August 1, 1956, it directed that facilities be provided to increase water releases to Pyramid Lake to restore its fishery.

By 1963, however, when the Bureau of Reclamation finally firmed up its plans for the project, it revealed, on the contrary, that the new dams would cause the lake to go down even faster. In April, 1964, responding to protests by the Paiutes, then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall appointed a task force to examine the claims of everyone, including the Indians. A preliminary report, completed in September, indicated concern over how to increase, rather than decrease, the water going to Pyramid Lake. It proposed certain modifications in the Washoe plan and economies by the Newlands Project. But it recommended no specified grant of water to the lake, nor did it guarantee that the lake would not suffer from the Washoe Project. It said only that the government should exercise “every effort to maintain the greatest practicable flow of water into Pyramid Lake.”

When public hearings on the report were held in Reno, the Paiutes and various Indian and white supporters argued angrily against the omission of a guaranteed grant of water for the lake.

“Why tell us you will give us as much water as possible?” demanded Avery Winnemucca, a spokesman for the Paiutes. “Why don’t you be specific? At least you did that with others. You’ve got figures to prove that there is so much allocation for this and so much for that, all in figures. But Pyramid Lake, no. You give us as much as possible.”

Other pro-lake, pro-Indian speakers went further, claiming that any discussion of the Washoe Project was premature until the government, under the Winters’Doctrine, took steps to guarantee the lake’s preservation. “Here in Nevada a terrible crime has been committed against Nevada’s first citizens,” charged the Reverend H. Clyde Mathews, chairman of the Nevada Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Then he added what few others in Nevada had previously admitted openly:

If this property had been owned by six hundred white stockholders in an irrigation company, would this property have been taken without compensation, or at all? … The United States government itself has been discriminatory on the basis of race, creed, and national origin in the manner in which the Nevada Indians’ water and fishery rights have been allowed to be denied, ignored, manipulated, and in effect destroyed.

Despite such pleas, the task force’s final report refused to recommend that the government go to court to seek a water grant for the lake. There was no time for a long, complex water-rights case. A water-users’ vote on the Washoe Project was waiting. Moreover, this was a classic illustration of how American Indians have suffered from having their affairs handled by the Department of the Interior. The department chose the course of action that avoided an internal conflict of mammoth proportions: the successful prosecution of the Indians’ case would have endangered not only the Newlands Project but other reclamation projects that Indian tribes elsewhere might claim had overridden their rights.

All the Department of the Interior could do for Pyramid Lake, the task force noted, was to undertake certain measures—including the salvaging of excess water, the elimination of waste, and the imposition of regulations and controls at the Newlands Project—that would increase the amount of water available to the lake. The carrying-out of the recommendations would guarantee a considerable increase of water to the lake, Udall told the Indians, and with that promise they withdrew their opposition to the Washoe Project. On November 3, 1964, the voters in the affected Nevada river basins approved it.

The government did make efforts to conserve Truckee River water by setting up certain controls on the Newlands Project, but it soon became questionable whether the Indians would benefit. Despite the Paiutes’ appeals for a statement of a legal basis for the water Udall had promised them, the Department of the Interior refused to assert that the United States owned, controlled, and had the right to deliver to Pyramid Lake the water it was going to save on the Newlands Project, thus leaving that water open to appropriation by non-Indian users.

In 1968 the threat surfaced with a vengeance. Since 1955 California and Nevada had been working on a settlement that would divide between the two states the waters flowing from Lake Tahoe. All the water in question (including the Truckee and Carson) passed through California before entering Nevada, so California, too, had a claim to it. After thirteen years of work, a document was drafted that not only limited the Indians’ water to what the Orr Ditch decree gave them in 1944, but went beyond that by expressly preventing the federal government and the Indians from ever going to court to seek more water for Pyramid Lake . Henceforth, the Indians would have to apply to Nevada for any water saved by the Newlands Project, and the threat of the Winters’ Doctrine would disappear.

The compact was too raw even for the Department of the Interior, which did not care to turn over the fate of federal water rights in Nevada to the state. The department registered its objections, with the implied threat that Congress would not ratify the agreement. But the Nevada legislature took up the document all the same, and after brief hearings approved the compact. In California it was a different story. Unwilling to risk rejection by Congress, and appealed to by the Northern Paiute Indians, the National Congress of American Indians, and many Indian and white friends, the California Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and Conservation refused to approve the compact unless it was rewritten to preserve Pyramid Lake and eliminate objections of the Department of the Interior.

The state of Nevada refused to change its mind, and on July 6, last summer, the new Secretary of the Interior, Walter J. Hickel, met at Lake Tahoe with governors Ronald Reagan of California and Paul Laxalt of Nevada to try to break the deadlock. Their solution, announced to the press after a ninety-minute meeting on the lake in the cabin of a cruiser owned by Reno gambler William Harrah, made matters worse. Without consulting the Indians, they had agreed that engineers should hasten Pyramid Lake’s gradual decline by draining it down to the level at which it would stabilize.

As Vine Deloria, Jr., Indian author of Custer Died for Your Sins and a former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, put it: “It was the same logic used by the Army to destroy a Vietnamese village—‘We had to destroy the village to save it.’ It naturally followed that the only way to save Pyramid Lake was to drain it.”

The weird proposal, which would have dropped the lake abruptly by 152 feet and left it a salt lake in a huge basin of mudflats, outraged not only the Paiutes, who could not believe that the three governments would commit such a flagrant robbery of their property, but large numbers of non-Indians in Nevada, who suddenly saw Pyramid Lake as a priceless gem of the desert and an important recreation asset for the whole state. The public outcry forced the three officials to drop the plan hurriedly and set up, instead, another task force of federal and state appointees who would try to satisfy the Indians so a new version of the compact could be written. Even that task force got off to a controversial start, however, when Governor Laxalt claimed the right to name the Paiute representative to the body, which the Indians asserted was dominated, anyhow, by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Since that time the Indians’ position has worsened. The Paiutes have continued to ask the federal government to live up to its responsibility and go to court in their behalf, but the Department of the Interior has ignored their pleas. Instead, it has indicated a determination to complete its Washoe Project dams on the upper Truckee and Carson rivers before an Indian suit, based on the Winters’ Doctrine, can halt them. With the project’s completion, Pyramid Lake’s doom will be sealed, since most of the impounded water—including floodwater that the lake has been receiving up to now—will go to the Newlands irrigators and other non-Indian users. A government-initiated suit for the Indians would be even more unlikely at that time than now, and the lake’s future would be decided by the task force. The shape of that decision is already clear: “Obviously,” said a Bureau of Reclamation official about the Indians’ rights, “there must be some compromises.” The lake will still go down.

Facing continued betrayal by the government, the Indians have decided recently to try to go to court for themselves. They lack resources and, perhaps, adequate legal and technical support. But they have shown a determination to seek the means to press the issue.

It is more than a case of asserting their rights, undoing a theft, or saving a lake. “Everywhere you turn there is a reminder of the injustice that was done to [Indians in the past], an injustice of a remote, irreparable, and therefore comfortable, variety,” wrote A. J. Liebling in 1955. In Nevada in 1970, to another Indian people, in an injustice neither remote, irreparable, nor comfortable, there is the large matter of survival.

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