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A Doubtful River

Water in the American West is sprayed from ornamental fountains, recycled through human made waterfalls, and generated as ocean waves in land-locked wild water oases. A charitable visitor might believe water is plentiful. Yet aridity is inescapable, at least in the Great Basin which includes portions of Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah. Faced with the vastness of brown mountain ranges and a horizon tainted with industrialized air, we can no longer sustain the illusion of plentiful water.

The urban and agricultural areas located in this Great Basin region of western Nevada depend primarily upon unpredictable snowpack in surrounding mountain ranges and on rivers that flood or, at times, run dry. While western states' populations grow at phenomenal rates, the ancient and irreplacable waters in the aquifers are depleted to serve the ever-increasing thirst of new development. The Truckee River, a modest and shallow river on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, like many other western rivers, has been over-subscribed for decades. This river, the life-support for nearly 200,000 people living in western Nevada, is threatened by an annual increase in urban population, measuring consistently at nearly eight percent.

Geographic Background

The Truckee River was the first western river to be altered by the U.S. government for irrigation. The Truckee River is dammed, diverted, and divided to quench the thirst of its many users: recreationalists and power generators in Nevada and California, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, residents of the Truckee Meadows, farmers in western Nevada, and state and federal fish and wildlife agencies. Derby Dam, which diverts the Truckee, was built in 1905. This visually modest dam is steeped in symbolism, since its origins can be found in the Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian deocracy. The federally-funded Newlands Project, as this irrigation scheme is known, inaugurated a century of dissention and turmoil despite its publicly stated noble intentions. As the Jeffersonian premise of 160 acres--to provide food, shelter, and prosperity--encountered the alkali landscape, the harsh reality of desert farming emerged. Selenium salts and arsenic drain from irrigated lands into the Stillwater Wildlife Refuge, threatening this major Pacific flyway. Poor soil characteristics limit crop choices, regardless of water volume. Dry years reduce agreed upon allocations, regardless of need or legal standing.

Since the first diversion in 1906, Pyramid Lake, where the Truckee River ends, has lost more than 45 feet of verical shoreline, threatening vital rookeries and wildlife habitats. The Pyramid Lake Pauite Tribe, its members historically gatherers, fishers, and protectors of Pyramid Lake, have been entangled for nearly a century seeking redress for the lost water. Lying to the east of Pyramid Lake is Winnemucca Lake; this sister lake, almost as long as Pyramid Lake but only half as wide, used to fill with Pyramid Lake's seasonal overflow and was a key staging area for migratory waterfowl. Once 87 feet deep, Winnemucca Lake dried up after the waters of the Truckee were diverted at Derby Dam. While Winnemucca Lake was made a National Wildlife Refuge in 1936, some thirty years after the start of the water diversions, refuge status was abandoned in 1962 when officials realized it would never refill. In the 1950s and 1960s and for brief intervals in the 1980s and 1990s, Winnemucca Lake intermittently held water, but it is now a dry alkali lake bed. The Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge and Management Area liesat the terminus point of diverted waters from the Truckee. To the north and east of Fallon ranches, this major wetland site endured low water due to prolonged drought and reduced Truckee River diversions. Stillwater also suffered higher levels of toxic contamination due to selenium and boron in farm water draining through the ancient lake bed sediments. In recent wet winters (1994-1999), Stillwater enjoyed a reprieve. Yet, wetland acreage at times totals less than five percent of per-European settlement ages. This crucial natural resource's survival depends on negotiated settlements between radically different communities.

Purpose and Design of A Doubtful River:

Landscape is divided yet woven together by the waters of the Truckee. Connecting a tourist gaming economy, a rural ranching oasis, and an aboriginal belief system, the Truckee River offers evidence of the layered complexity inherent in creating a sense of community defined by shared needs. We hope that these photographs can be useful in understanding the debate over this watershed's environmental and political future. We invite you to consider how the culture of this arid land concieves of water, as a commodity, an abstract legal right, rather then the most basic physical source of life.

About the Water in the West Project:

The project evolved out of a larger collaborative project called Water in the West. It began in 1983 when Robert Dawson and Ellen Manchester began to look at water as a critical element of living in the arid American West. They were later joined by Peter Goin and Mark Klett and eventually fifteen photographers and advisors. The group periodically exhibits their work, conducts public symposia, publishes books and articles, and meets to share work. The Water in the West archive will be permanently housed at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.

About the Truckee River/Pyramid Lake Photographic Project:

Robert Dawson and Peter Goin began collaborating on the Truckee River/Pyramid Lake Project in 1988.

We realized that this study of water in the West needed to focus on an entire watershed rather than the individual parts of water systems. Understanding that the river can become a vehicle for understanding the dynamic and sometimes conflicting relationships between the cultures of this region, we decided that it was important to physically follow the river. We spent the next six year walking, driving, and flying over all parts of this complex piece of Wester hydrology. In addition to photographing the river, we examined the urban, ranching and Indian cultures and the relationship to the Truckee. Although some photographic work was completed seperately, we mostly worked together in the field. Working together was important because much of the development of the project took place while driving through the Western landscape. By allowing time to photograph, develop prints, learn from those photographs, and then go back and work some more, we were able to learn from each other as well as learn from the landscape. Days were spent together discussing what we saw, what we hoped to do in this project, and how our photographs could be useful in understanding this place. In 1994, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. collected an entire set of 530 images from the Truckee River/Pyramid Lake Project for their permanent collection, and selected images were included in the Library of Congress's publication on their collection, Eyes of the Nation. In 1995, work from the project was exhibited at the Washington Center for Photography and the Troyer, Fitzpatrick, Lassman Gallery in Washington, D.C. Robert Dawson and Peter Goin participated at that time in a lecture and panel discussion about this project at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

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