Current Research

Riparian Revolt: Environmental Transformations and Water Policy in Early Nevada, 1850-1890

Photo courtesy special collections university of nevada reno

In the northwestern corner of the Great Basin where the arid high-desert meets the cool peaks of the Sierra Nevada, there is one resource coveted above all others: water. Water is at the heart of the Indigenous creation stories of both the Washoe and Northern Paiute who have long called the region home, and water remains a key aspect of Washoe spiritual practices. Whether on the shores of Tahoe, Pyramid, or Walker lakes, or along the banks of the Carson, Truckee, or Walker Rivers the people depended on the water and its fisheries to sustain their lives.

When Euro-American explorers first arrived in 1843 searching for the fabled San Buenaventura River, they too followed and drew upon these liquid resources. As overland emigration steadily increased over the decade, these waterways serviced the California Trail. In 1852 emigrants began settling in the lush valleys that abutted these waterways establishing bucolic lifestyles for themselves. Silver was discovered in what would become Virginia City and the Comstock Lode in 1859, and the subsequent population boom and demands of industrialized mining led to increased stresses upon the region’s limited water supply. The question that soon dominated the Comstock was how to guarantee a steady supply of water. It would not take long for that question to be transformed into a much more contentious issue: whose water was it?

This question provides the impetus for this research project. In the decades spanning 1850-1890, Nevadans turned to the courts to resolve their growing conflicts over water. Litigation would come to a head when the Union Mill and Mining Company—part of the Bank of California cabal—sued ranchers and farmers upstream of their mills along the Carson River. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the corporation creating a riparian policy that acknowledged a right to beneficial use of all users. There are three main questions which I intend to investigate for this project. First, how did we arrive at a decision where a form a riparianism trumped the right of prior appropriation? Because prior appropriation played such a large role in this, as well as other Nevada water litigation, a second, but equally important, question must be asked: to what extent were tribal rights of prior appropriation considered and/or acknowledged within the battles to control Nevada’s water? Finally, because litigation was so extensive, one must ask did the Nevada Legislature fail to enact legislation or was the legislation so vague as to provoke repeated challenges in the courts?