First Thoughts on The Newlands Project

“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value. Conservation means development as much as it does protection.” Theodore Roosevelt. 1910

I’ve been reading this week about the Newlands and Washoe Projects. It seems easy to vilify Newlands without crediting it for powering the engine that drives several Nevada counties. I understand that governmental entities are now the largest group of water rights holders in the Project, to best insure water for Pyramid Lake and the Lahontan Valley wetlands. But those two uses were simply not considered when water contracts were signed at the turn of the last century.

Federal reclamation law and Nevada water law demanded at that time a water use be beneficial. But what is a beneficial use? Recreation wasn’t considered a beneficial use in 1902. Nor was keeping a tribal fishery alive. Nor was wetland maintenance or remediation. Instead, those beneficial uses of water were recognized over time. This happened as court cases were settled and as people’s knowledge of their cultural and physical environment increased.

In 1902 people considered water flowing into a salty lake like Pyramid as waste. They reasoned that all that water could do was evaporate. Back then, irrigating farmland, watering stock, and supporting the mining industry were clear examples of beneficial uses. Perhaps most importantly, or perhaps cynically, a beneficial use was one that could pay back the Federal government.

“The federal reclamation program was to take this wasting asset and store it for use on family farms where the use was ‘beneficial,’ since it produced a tangible return for the costs of storage and distribution.” (Townley, 1977:141) The desert itself was considered waste, something to be reclaimed in favor of agriculture. Wetlands, too, were deemed wastelands, to be drained and then cultivated. Thinking on this has evolved but a look at the other side of the ledger is in order.

It is assumed that growing food intelligently is not a waste of water.

According to the Nevada Department of Agriculture, Churchill County’s food and agriculture sector contributed $320 million to the county’s economy in 2015. It directly accounted for 965 jobs. Exports were $192 million that year. The county is home to 672 farms and ranches. Churchill County’s total agricultural production output value was $124 million in 2015. Its total food manufacturing output value was $100 million. That’s one county impacted by the Newlands Project.

Lyon County, beneficiary of Newlands Project irrigated areas near Fernley, shows similar impressive figures. In 2015 it had 462 farms and ranches with $174 million in total agricultural output value. Washoe County, utilizing the Truckee River in part, has 479 ranches and farms. Those produced $57.9 million in total agricultural output in 2015. With a total of $1.1 billion in food manufacturing.

Economic success does not excuse environmental damage or the ignoring of tribal rights. Unintended consequences occurred, goals were overstated, money  wasted. But Newlands sought a self sustaining farming community that would benefit everyone, with local food and jobs.  The Washoe Project, which I am just now starting to read about, was a hopeful and positive development to correct many of Newland’s deficiencies. I’ll leave this post with a quote from the International Water Resources Association;

“A clear and present movement exists in the Western United States to move water out of agriculture to urban and municipal uses. A definite impact is occurring on food and fiber production, however, at what point will we prioritize agriculture to ensure sustainable food production without increase reliance on imports. Cooperation and rotation must be considered in lieu of spending resources in court and litigation.”.

Historical photo of Lahontan Dam near Fallon.

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