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Nevada Tribe to Divert Water to Aid Fish, River

Rights once controlled by the notorious Mustang Ranch brothel will be used to increase flows in the Truckee, but not for agriculture.

October 05, 2003|Sandra Chereb | Associated Press Writer

RENO, Nev. — Water rights once controlled by Nevada's notorious brothel boss Joe Conforte will go to help threatened fish, a parched river and a shrinking lake.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has acquired 461 acre-feet of water rights that were once owned by the kingpin of the Mustang Ranch bordello and will use the water to increase flows in the lower Truckee River and to Pyramid Lake, officials said last week. The waterways northeast of Reno are home to the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout and endangered cui-ui fish.

"We've been working on it for over a year now," said John Jackson, vice chairman and water resources manager for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

"It's very exciting. Once we dedicate that water for in-stream flows, that water's designated ... and cannot be diverted" for agricultural use downstream, he said. "It's quite a substantial block of water. It'll stay in the river and go to the lake."

An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover an acre to the depth of 1 foot, or about 326,000 gallons -- about enough to supply two families for a year.

The water rights, along with the brothel 15 miles east of Reno and other Mustang Ranch assets, were seized by the IRS in 1999 after a federal fraud and racketeering trial led to convictions of the Mustang's manager and its parent companies. Conforte is a fugitive believed to be hiding in South America.

The colorful Conforte had run the infamous 104-room brothel for years when bordellos were outlawed. In 1971, it became the state's first legal bordello and led to the movement to legalize prostitution in parts of Nevada.

The 340-acre property along the Truckee River was transferred by the IRS to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in February.

"They were willing to give us the land if we paid for the water rights," said John Singlaub, manager of the BLM's Carson City field office. The BLM transferred the water rights to the tribe, which reimbursed the IRS $821,000 for the forfeiture, he said.

The tribe acquired the water rights under the 1996 Truckee River Water Quality Settlement, an offshoot of an earlier operating agreement forged by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to end a century of water wars along the river.

The Truckee River runs about 100 miles, dropping 2,400 feet in elevation as it rushes from the alpine waters of Lake Tahoe through downtown Reno and into the high desert at Pyramid Lake.

The water quality agreement settled a lawsuit filed in the early 1990s by the tribe over construction of a water treatment plant that tribal officials argued would harm the river and the fish, which spawn in its lower reaches.

Under the settlement designed to protect the river's species, Reno, Sparks, Washoe County and the state agreed to pay $12 million to purchase water rights to augment river flows when water levels drop, said Don Mahin, senior engineer with Washoe County's water resources department. The federal government appropriated another $12 million to the tribe for water rights purchases.

Since 1997, nearly 4,200 acre-feet of water has been purchased under the agreement, Mahin said.

Decades of agricultural water diversions for the Newlands Irrigation Project resulted in a dramatic drop in the level of Pyramid Lake. Combined with drought and evaporation, the lake dropped 85 feet since the 1900s, preventing fish from moving upstream to spawn most years.

Rob Scanlon of Great Basin Land & Water, a nonprofit group that helped coordinate the water purchase, said it will enhance other projects. Plans include rechanneling the river to improve food control and develop wetlands.

The federal water master has been notified of the acquisition, but the tribe must notify the state engineer to change the location and designated use of the water from agriculture to wildlife use, Jackson said.

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