Paiute tribe, federal government, at odds over water for fish
RENO – The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe wants the federal government to release more water into the Truckee River to prevent a die-off of the endangered cui-ui fish.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has denied the request, saying because of drought conditions, a release of water now could leave Stampede Reservoir high and dry by mid summer and may be more harmful to the fish.
The cui-ui (pronounced Kwee-wee), is a sucker fish that swims this time of year from Pyramid Lake north of Reno up the lower Truckee River to spawn.
”The tribe is saying we’ve got our share of water up there, release it,” Elwood Lowery, executive director of Pyramid Lake Fisheries, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
”We’re saying go ahead and release the water for the fish.”
Fish and wildlife officials insist Stampede Reservoir lacks enough water to support a cui-ui spawn without ultimately turning the reservoir into a puddle.
Drought conditions have dried up other sources of water that might normally help supply a spawning run, as Reno now is experiencing its second driest season on record.
”We do believe there’s a sufficient amount to support a spawn run but by midsummer there would be no water in Stampede. You’d be left with a puddle,” said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Randi Thompson. ”There’s just not enough water.”
Federal biologists also fear early release of Stampede water under drought conditions will dry up the lowest reaches of the Truckee River later in the summer, causing significant ecological damage. They say the cui-ui population is healthy enough that loss of a spawn cycle this year would have relatively little impact.
Both sides insist their strategy offers the best hope to avoid a die-off of a thousand or more fish.
By not releasing water into the river, Fish and Wildlife officials say the cui-ui would be discouraged from attempting to spawn under dangerously dry conditions.
”It is our position that making water releases from Stampede Reservoir during this severe drought and under poor fish passage conditions will encourage cui-ui into potentially massive mortality,” Bob Williams, the federal agency’s Nevada field supervisor, wrote in a March 29 letter to Tribal Chairman Alan Mandell.
Tribal officials insist the fish will attempt to spawn in any case and unless more water is made available, they will become trapped in pools downstream of the reservation’s Marble Bluff Dam. There they could die in oxygen-starved water or be eaten by the thousands of pelicans that migrate to the Pyramid Lake area to feed on migrating fish.
Although the federal government controls all water releases from Stampede, the Paiutes are about to take greater control. Under a first-of-its-kind pact between the federal government and an Indian Tribe that was signed in 1999, the Pyramid Paiutes will be given control of water that originates outside of the reservation and is earmarked to help endangered fish species.
The tribe is working on a management plan for Truckee River water to be used to aid the cui-ui and another endangered fish, the Lahontan cutthroat trout.
Until the management plan is finished and approved by Fish and Wildlife, the federal government remains ”in the drivers seat” concerning releases from Stampede Reservoir this year, Lowery said.
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