Riparian Revolt: Water Policy and Ecological Change in Early Nevada, 1850-1900
This dissertation explores environmental settler colonialism and the creation of water policy in early Nevada. Much of the history of the Comstock Lode is centered in Virginia City with a focus upon silver mining and the engineering that made it all possible. Yet without water, none of it would have been possible. Water is present in nearly every aspect of life on the Comstock. Examining water and its role in early Nevada expands previous understandings of the Comstock’s hinterlands to include Pyramid and Walker Lakes along with the Truckee and Walker Rivers that flow into them, demonstrating that dependency on resources was not simply limited to mining and commercial enterprise, but to the necessities of life itself within the region. Because Nevadans themselves recognized the significance of water due to its scarcity, determining an individual’s legal claim to water became a question of the highest priority. Had the territory, and later the state, always recognized an individual’s right to appropriate water on a first come, first served basis, or did settlers recognize mutually beneficial riparian rights were necessary for the successful development of their arid environment? As water rights became codified, to what extent were Indigenous communities’ claims to water rights legally recognized? These questions are not easily answered, for individuals, governing bodies, and multiple courts could not agree. As Nevadans searched for a clearly articulated water policy, the result was myriad rulings addressing individual disputes and a hodgepodge of policies that could, and often did, differ between watersheds, counties, and communities. In sum, the water rights were a mess. This dissertation embraces that mess. Conflict and disputes were necessary steps in creating a thorough water policy. Rather than seeing the patchwork policies as chaos, I argue that Nevadans sought an equitable middle ground between the riparian and appropriation doctrines that recognized water scarcity without fully depriving one party’s access to water over another’s. Though the state would ultimately adopt a policy of prior appropriation like much of the American West, this early period demonstrates it was not inevitable; another path was possible, and for a short period of time, pursued.