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Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe attempts to recover native fish with $8 million dam revamp

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe chairman holds his hand across his chest while speaking to a group of people. The tribe’s vice chairman stands next to him. In the background is Pyramid Lake and a mountain range.
Maria Palma
KUNR Public Radio
Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Chairman James Phoenix (left) speaks about the tribe’s history and culture while standing at Popcorn Overlook on Pyramid Lake in Nev. on Sept. 13, 2023. Vice Chairman Steven Wadsworth is standing next to him.

At the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation in northern Nevada, rolling mountains cloaked in pale-green sagebrush unfold for miles like a painting that never ends.

Standing at an overlook in these hills, Tribal Chairman James Phoenix watches the Truckee River rush over Numana Dam, an irrigation diversion structure.

As a kid, Phoenix fished in these waters for Cui-ui, a type of sucker fish that isn’t found anywhere else in the world.

A close-up image of a Cui-ui fish out of the water being held up to the camera.
The federally endangered Cui-ui, which is only found in Pyramid Lake, Nev., is central to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s culture.

“Bringing them to shore and then cutting and filleting them, that’s what my dad had taught me,” Phoenix said with a smile. “And I got to experience that’s how he was taught when he was young.”

The tribe refers to themselves as Cui-ui Tucutta in their Native language, which means “the Cui-ui eaters.”

But tribal members stopped catching them back in the 1980s as the fish population plummeted.

A big reason for the decreased fish population is the dam, which was built more than 100 years ago to divert river water to the reservation for farming and ranching. But it’s been a barrier for migration of the endangered Cui-ui and threatened Lahontan Cutthroat Trout – another fish crucial to the tribe.

A previous tribal council discussed removing or modifying the dam, but kept running into the same hurdle.

“A lot of funds weren’t available,” Phoenix said.

That finally changed. The tribe is receiving $8.3 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to modify the dam. The money will be used to build a large underwater ramp – stretching from bank to bank – so fish can swim up and over the dam. The project, which recently broke ground, will reopen 65 miles of river for their migration.

A wide-angled image of a river flowing over a diversion dam, surrounded by a green and brown landscape with mountains.
Maria Palma
KUNR Public Radio
The Numana Dam, seen here on Sept. 13, 2023, was built in 1917 to divert Truckee River water to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation for farming and ranching. A project to modify the dam will reopen 65 miles of spawning grounds for the endangered Cui-ui.

Phoenix says that will impact more than the tribe’s culture.

“It’s important to our economics,” he continued. “We rely on tourism and fishing. We get a lot of anglers that are coming in seasonally, so it’s really big for us.”

Dams aren’t the only obstacles fish populations like Cui-ui and Lahontan Cutthroat Trout have to overcome, said Siva Sundaresan, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“As climate changes in places, we’re seeing changes in snowpack, changes in the timing of when you have snow melt, changing water temperatures,” he said. “All of that is definitely affecting fish populations, fish habitat.”

Sundaresan said that’s why the fish passage project at Numana Dam is one of dozens nationwide receiving federal funding. Other projects in the Mountain West include efforts to recover Yellowstone Cutthroat in Idaho; Rio Grande Cutthroat in New Mexico; Bear River Cutthroat in Wyoming and Utah; and Flannelmouth Sucker in Utah.

Projects include everything from removing old dams to installing new culverts, which are large pipes that pass streams beneath roadways.

“The more, I think, we can restore these ecosystems, allow fish to migrate up and down the streams, have habitat where they can find refuge when water temperatures rise, the better we will be at protecting and restoring, conserving these fish populations,” Sundaresan said.

At the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, the underwater ramp will allow up to 600,000 Cui-ui to swim over the diversion dam to new spawning grounds, said Lisa Heki, a Reno-based project leader with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A conceptual illustration of a modified dam shows how an underwater ramp structure will include steps and pools to help fish move across the barrier.
Allan Richards
Stetson Engineers Inc.
A conceptual illustration of the modified Numana Dam on the Truckee River shows how the underwater ramp will include steps and pools to help fish move across the barrier.

“Historically, they move in large numbers at the same time, and they back up behind this current design,” Heki said. “Now, with this gradient structure downstream, it’s designed specifically for Cui-ui swimming capacity and speed.”

Heki said when river flows go down this fall, construction of the ramp structure will speed up. The tribe is putting the project out for a construction bid and a third-party contractor will build it, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tribal Chairman James Phoenix said the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is excited to finally see shovels break ground on a decades-long effort to recover their native fish.

“It’s historical,” said Phoenix. “It’s big for us and it's part of our existence. It signifies us as Numu people here at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.”

Phoenix said he’s looking forward to the day when the Cui-ui population is big enough for tribal members to catch, fillet and eat them once again.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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