RENO — The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld most of a ruling that ordered a rural irrigation district to pay back billions of gallons of water it took from a tribe decades ago.
The justices directed a federal judge in Reno to go back and determine how much more water the Pyramid Lake Paiutes are entitled to as a result of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District illegally diverting flows for its own farmers and ranchers in Northern Nevada’s high desert during the 1970s and 1980s.
The appellate court rejected most of the district’s bid to overturn a 2003 decision that determined the water from Lake Tahoe and other reservoirs should have continued down the Truckee River to help bolster a traditional tribal fishery in serious decline.
U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben in Reno was correct when he determined the irrigation district had “willfully failed to comply” with a 1973 agreement that divided up the water, the opinion said.
The ruling was issued by Judge Mary Schroeder on behalf of a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit in San Francisco.
Since 1973, the district has made “several additional attempts to sidestep accountability,” she wrote.
A lawyer for the tribe hailed the ruling and said he is certain it will mean additional water for the tribe.
“The district had been thumbing its nose at the 9th Circuit, and the 9th Circuit really put its foot down and said, ‘You have no business doing this, and you have to pay it back,’ ” said Don Springmeyer, a Las Vegas attorney representing the Paiutes.
Michael Van Zandt, a San Francisco lawyer for the district, said the district has not decided whether to ask for a rehearing before the full 9th Circuit or to make their arguments before McKibben.