This is the first in a series of fact sheets describing a research study of water users in the Walker River Basin. This first fact sheet describes the overall study, instrument development, data collection procedure and analysis as well as some of the general findings. Additional fact sheets will describe in detail the findings concerning each of the six objectives.


Bordering the Sierra Nevada lies a vast space of open dry land that is interspersed with sections that mirror an oasis. It is this desired lifestyle within the desert mountains, in one of the driest states in the nation, that local people are involved in shaping public policy to survive an ever-changing world focused on the use of water. It is the governing use of water resources, entwined in a legal framework, which is among the most complex and intriguing of renewable resources. This framework derives from the mixture of common-law heritage, constitutional and statutory law (federal, state, and local), local custom, judicial decisions and international convention (Adams, 1993).

The Walker River Basin, running from the eastern slopes of the Sierras in California to a desert lake in Nevada, has been the source of major controversy for farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, Indian Tribes and federal/state agencies for decades. Arguments over water rights in the Walker River began after the settlement of homesteaders and have continued in the 21st century. Disagreements include lawsuits, various studies, an Environmental Impact Study to purchase water rights from willing sellers, an Environmental Impact Study on Weber reservoir and water buyouts being discussed in the U.S. Senate as part of the 2002 Farm Bill.

The Walker River, in all its glory, faces the same fate as other rivers just like it in the West. The demand for water is never-ending, and conflict arises based upon whom and what should have the right of use. The obstacle for those involved is to understand the lifestyles, customs and cultures of every community, individual and species affected by water use in the Walker River Basin. People are demanding more involvement in public decisions, and it has been proven that decisions made through a collaborative process are more likely to be implemented (Singletary, Ball, Rebori, UNCE SP- 00-04).

The Study

The focus of this research study was to randomly identify Walker River Basin agriculture water right owners within selected areas of the Walker River Basin. The study objectives are to compare the perceptions and attitudes of water right owners regarding Walker River Basin issues, including attitudes toward Walker Lake. The objectives were the following:

  1. Compare farming and ranching operations and demographic characteristics in three different areas of Walker River Basin agriculture water right owners.
  2. Compare the perceptions and attitudes in three different areas of Walker River Basin water right owners on the importance of Walker Lake.
  3. Compare the willingness in three different areas of Walker River Basin water right owners to sell or lease their decree water rights.
  4. Compare the willingness in three different areas of Walker River Basin water right owners to sell or lease their storage water rights.
  5. Compare the environmental priorities within the basin based on the perceptions and attitudes in three different areas of Walker River Basin agriculture water right owners.
  6. Compare the influence, if any, that selected Walker River Basin agriculture water right owners in three different areas believed they have had on policy regarding Walker Lake.

Selected areas in the study were identified as Bridgeport Valley, Antelope Valley, Smith Valley, Mason Valley and the Walker River Indian Reservation. Nevada Agriculture Statistics was contacted and estimated the number of water right owners in Smith Valley, Mason Valley, and Bridgeport Valley based on records from the Nevada Division of Water Resources. There was no data available for Bridgeport Valley. The Walker River Paiute Tribe estimated data for lands located with the reservation.

Instrument Development and Data Collection Procedure

A closed-ended questionnaire was developed in cooperation with the Mono County, Smith Valley and Mason Valley Conservation Districts. The six-page survey instrument contained 38 questions (Emm, 2003). The layout of the questionnaire was designed to take into consideration question format, subject and objectives. The questionnaire was divided into 6 sections. The format of the questionnaire included five-point Likert-type scales, a seven-point semantic differential and multiple-choice selection. The survey instrument was formally reviewed by three faculty member of the University of Nevada, Reno known for working with questionnaire-based research. Suggested changes were incorporated with one suggestion being a pilot test. A decision was made to run a small pilot test of the survey to identify if the questions were truly asking what they were designed to ask. The pilot test resulted in reliability coefficients ranging from high to very high (.81 to .98).

Due to the small geographical survey area, samples were drawn from map-based “area frames” commonly used when no lists are available (Salant and Dillman, 1994). The research targeted area frames of high agriculture areas within the Walker River Basin.

Survey data collection began on June 28, 2003 beginning with the Walker River Indian Reservation. Data collection was completed on September 7, 2003 in the Smith Valley area. Due to the unavailability of data and time constraint, the Bridgeport area was not randomly surveyed. However, some Bridgeport data was collected from respondents contacted in the Mason Valley, Smith Valley and Antelope Valley areas who also own water rights in the Bridgeport area.

There were 139 individuals contacted out of the possible 520 using the protocol of selected high agriculture areas. Twenty-three individuals declined to participate in the study. There were 116 individuals that completed the survey and participated in the study.

Respondents by area that participated or declined to participate in the research study.
Area Amount
Antelope Valley 19 (2 Declined)
Smith Valley 13 (11 Declined)
Mason Valley 36 (6 Declined)
Bridgeport Valley 3
Multiple Areas 7
Walker River Indian X
Reservation 38 (4 Declined)
Total: 116

Data was coded numerically and modifications were made to allow the use of a statistical package called Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS, 2001). The SPSS subprogram FREQUENCIES (SPSS, 2001) was used to calculate the frequencies and percentages for each of the survey questions to check for possible errors in coding and data entry. The subprogram RELIABILITY (SPSS, 2001) was used to determine the internal consistency in measuring the dependent variables for the different objectives with the study. The survey design was found to be good to meet the objectives in the research study and all scales were found to be consistent with a “high” average alpha score.

Analysis of Data and Major Findings

The five areas were combined into three subgroups to more easily analyze the data obtained from the questionnaire. The Walker River Indian Reservation became WRIR, Mason and Smith Valleys became MV/SV, and Antelope Valley, Bridgeport Valley and those individuals that owned water rights in more than one of the five areas originally surveyed in the protocol became “Multiple.”

The general findings found no significant differences between Walker River Basin water rights owners regarding age, level of education and the number of years living within the boundaries of the basin. There were significant differences regarding the number of irrigated acres in production by area, the types of water right used for irrigation by area and major agriculture production activities by area.

Walker River Indian Reservation (WRIR) felt differently than the other two areas when evaluating Walker Lake. There were significant differences between the three areas on whether or not decree water rights could be sold, but no significant differences on whether or not decree water rights could be leased.

A statistical analysis indicated there was a significant difference by area in one question regarding storage water rights, which asks whether or not storage water rights could be leased regardless of the impacts to the area community environment.

There were no significant differences found regarding reported responses with the benefits of agriculture, Artesia Lake, open space, outdoor recreation, economy of area communities, riparian areas and maintaining custom and culture of area communities. Significant differences were reported for the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, Brown Trout/Rainbow Trout Fishery, Walker River water quality and Mason Valley Wildlife Management Area.

There were no significant differences found between areas regarding the influence water right owners believe they have had on policy regarding Walker Lake. There are 57.1% of group respondents that reported they were interested in Walker River Basin issues.


The purpose of this research study was to determine the perceptions and attitudes of Walker River Basin agriculture water right owners toward Walker Lake. Water right owners were randomly identified within selected areas of the Walker River Basin. The five areas identified in the Walker River Basin were combined into three sub areas for data analysis. The survey instrument for the research study focused on several important issues related to Walker River water rights, Walker Lake, fisheries and water policy.

This research study was created to identify commonalities and differences that existed between those that actually own the right of use of water in the Walker River Basin. In no way was this research study created to favor one side or the other. Further, it was apparent that there were topics/issues in which no differences existed among water right owners, while there were other topic/issues in which there are definite differences identified. The challenges still exist in identifying why there were differences between different areas, and can they be approached to reach potential solutions?

This first fact sheet describes the overall study, data, and general findings. Subsequent fact sheets will describe findings related to respondent demographics, perceptions and attitudes concerning water rights, willingness to sell and lease water rights, and environmental priorities within the basin. Each objective in the research study will be reported separately in a fact sheet. This is the first fact sheet in a series.


  • Adams, D.A. 1993. Renewable Resource Policy, The Legal-Institutional Foundations. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
  • California Department of Water Resources. 1992. Walker River Atlas. Sacramento, CA: State of California, Department of Water Resources.
  • Emm, S. 2003. Perceptions and Attitudes of Randomly Chosen Agriculture Water Right Owners in Selected Areas of the Walker River Basin Toward Walker Lake. Published Thesis, Colorado State University.
  • Salant, P. and Dillman D.A., 1994. How to Conduct Your Own Survey. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Singletary, L., Ball, A. and M. Rebori. 2000. Managing Natural Resource Disputes. University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. SP-00-04
  • California Department of Water Resources. 1992. Walker River Atlas. Sacramento, CA: State of California, Department of Water Resources.
Emm, S., Breazeale, D., and Smith, M., 2004, Walker River Basin Research Study: Perceptions and Attitudes of Water Right Owners, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, FS-13-19

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