U.S. Water News Online
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. The waterways
northeast of Reno are home of 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.''
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 guilty verdicts against
the Mustang's parent companies and manager. Conforte is a fugitive
and believed to be hiding in South America.
Before fleeing, the colorful Conforte had run the famous 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
The BLM transferred the water rights to the tribe, which
reimbursed the IRS $821,000 for the forfeiture, Singlaub 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 the 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 water level of
Pyramid Lake. Combined with drought and evaporation, the lake level
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
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