The Derby Dam was built in 1903. gates on the left of center direct water to Pyramid Lake. Gates to the right of center direct water into the Truckee Canal - photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

The Truckee River flows roughly 125 miles from Lake Tahoe and terminates in Pyramid Lake, one of a handful of endorheic lakes in the world. The Truckee is the primary source of municipal water for Reno and Sparks and suffers a variety of indignities as it passes through the cities. Abundant non-point source pollution and litter degrade water quality. About 40 miles beyond Sparks, the Derby Dam divides the river.

Some water continues on its natural path to Pyramid Lake. Some is directed into the Truckee Canal. The Truckee-Carson Irrigation District (TCID) manages 395 miles of canals and 345 miles of associated drains that spread out into Lyon and Churchill Counties. The main earthen canal snakes through Fernley and on to Lahontan Reservoir where Truckee water mingles with water from the Carson River. A dam controls the flow of water into a continuation of the Truckee Canal that terminates in the farmlands of Fallon and Stillwater Marsh.

The vast system of canals, barriers, and rising-stem gate valves has been in exclusive service to agriculture for 117 years until now. The City of Fernley is planning to take water from the canal for municipal uses within the next 18 months, the first municipality ever to do so.

Water tanks above Fernley, Nevada. The Fernley Public Lands Act makes adjacent public lands available for development – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

Between 2000 and 2010, the Fernley population increased by nearly 250 percent from 8,366 in 2000 to 19,386 in 2010. The growth rate has flattened since then with a 2019 population of 20,692.

The City of Fernley formally submitted a request to the US Bureau of Reclamation in September of 2019 to use canal water for municipal purposes. The application is currently under review. Under the proposed agreement with Reclamation, the city can only take direct deliveries of their surface water rights during the irrigation season.

“Because of this, the current plan is to primarily rely on our groundwater rights during the winter months and then convert to mostly surface water during the summer months,” wrote Fernley City Manager Daphne Hooper in an email. “The exact percentages of each source that we will use will depend on operational needs, availability of water (i.e. is it a drought year or not), whether we need to divert water to storage in upstream reservoirs, and other, similar factors.”

The Fernley Public Lands Act makes this and other federal land adjacent to Fernley available for development – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

The Ally asked Hooper what prompted the decision to take Truckee Canal water into the city’s municipal water system.

“Fernley has long sought to diversify its water resources,” Hooper wrote. “Currently all of the City’s water comes from the local groundwater aquifer. Having a second source of water will ensure that we have a robust water supply to meet both the current and future needs of our citizens.”

A small ranching operation in Fernley, Nevada floods a pasture, April 18, 2020 – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

Environmental Impact

The diversion at Derby Dam continues to have a debilitating environmental impact on Pyramid Lake.

Since the diversion began in 1903, lake level has dropped roughly 80 feet. Adjacent Winnemucca Lake dried up. The Lahontan cutthroat trout became extinct in the lake and river and has subsequently been reintroduced, but the Derby Dam continues to present fish migration challenges.

The cui-ui fish is found nowhere else in the world than the lower Truckee River and Pyramid Lake and is officially endangered. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, physical barriers that prevent migration are the primary cause of cui-ui population decline. A cui-ui can live for 40 years. Members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe are traditionally known as the cui-ui eaters.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe used the Endangered Species Act to force the US Department of the Interior to meet its responsibilities under the law to both the cutthroat trout and the cui-ui. Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribal Settlement Act laid the groundwork for the Truckee River Operating Agreement and the federal Operations Criteria and Procedures for the Newlands Project (OCAP).

The east side of Fernley, Nevada, April 18-2020 – photo: Brian Bahouth


The Truckee River Operating Agreement took three decades to negotiate and has been in effect since 2016. The massive document is intended to balance environmental concerns against established water rights on the Truckee River. Using a system of reservoirs and lakes, the Federal Water Master, based in Reno, controls water flows and availability throughout the year.

Roughly 90 percent of Truckee River water is deeded to Nevada and 10 percent to California. A dam controls six feet of Lake Tahoe. Stampede, Boca and Prosser reservoirs capture and release earmarked water to meet the needs of endangered and threatened species during dry seasons. Independence and Donner lakes help fulfill downstream water rights to include Fernley’s right to capture municipal water.

A residential development in Fernley, NV – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

Rusty Jardine is district manager of the Truckee Carson Irrigation District. He explained the system operation in an email.

“A dual control exists with TROA and OCAP. The Federal Water Master, as administrator of TROA, regulates flow on a daily basis to ensure that the water diverted into the canal at Derby Dam, or in the Truckee River to Pyramid Lake, meets the decreed rights of both the tribe (the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe) and water right holders in the Newlands Project when water from the Truckee River is needed to meet legal demand.

“OCAP, which exists to maximize the use of water in the Carson River in the project, provides storage targets for Lahontan Reservoir. As we attain those targets with Carson River flow, then diversions from the canal to Lahontan cease as a matter of regulation.  However, the Truckee Division of the project must always be served by the canal. So, the Federal Water Master is overseeing diversion into the canal for that purpose on a continuing basis.”

How is Diverted Water Used?

President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Federal Reclamation Act into law in 1902. The Derby Dam and Newlands Reclamation Project opened in 1903. The Truckee Carson Irrigation District operates the canal and performs two roles. The TCID operates the canal as an agent of the US Bureau of Reclamation. They also represent 2,500 water rights holders along the vast system. The TCID employs about 55 people directly and has an annual operating budget of about $3.5 million.

The Truckee Canal and its many moving parts is a registered historical landmark. Looked at from space, the canal between Lahontan Reservoir and Fallon is skirted in green fields. A large area south of Fallon is green with farming activity.

There are nearly 700 farms in Churchill County. More than half are smaller than 50 acres in size. A combination of groundwater and canal water irrigate crops, but the Truckee Canal contribution is significant.

A gate on the Truckee Canal in Fernley, Nevada on April 18, 2020 – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

According to the Nevada Department of Agriculture, agricultural work in Churchill County employs around 1,000 people with an annual labor income impact of $26.5 million. The total agricultural economic impact for Churchill County is around $172 million a year.

Livestock, poultry, and their products sold make up roughly 66 percent of total Churchill County output. Cash receipts from sales of other crops make up the remaining 34 percent.

Cattle and milk production made up nearly 90 percent of livestock production. Sheep, goats, wool, equine operations, poultry, eggs, hogs and other animals and their products make up the remaining 10 percent of livestock product sales.

Around 400 Churchill County farms grow only hay and grass silage, to include alfalfa. This crop uses more land and water than any other Churchill County crop.

Nevada is not known as an agricultural state, but a surprisingly wide variety of crops are grown in Churchill County with Truckee River and ground water. Farmers grow melons, potatoes, sweet potatoes, snap beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, onions, potatoes, pumpkin, squash, sweet corn, tomatoes, watermelons, and other vegetables harvested on proximity.

Nineteen Churchill County farms operate as orchards with a host of noncitrus fruits like apples, apricots, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, plumbs, berries, raspberries, and nuts.

Canal System Upgrade

In 2008 the earthen canal broke and flooded hundreds of homes in Fernley. The TCID has made application to do “Extraordinary Maintenance” to prevent another breach by lining the canal with concrete. On April 6, the Bureau of Reclamation denied a City of Fernley request to extend the public comment period on the project. On April 9, the City of Fernley, through their lawyer, filed an emergency petition in federal court in Reno. In the filing, the city complained that lining the canal, “will destroy Fernley’s groundwater supply.”

Because the canal and its many rising stem gate valves is on the National Register of Historic Places, planning for any repair invokes all protections and procedures under the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The TCID is in the midst of a multi-year process of obtaining an Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision on lining the canal. The COVID-19 emergency has forced the temporary cancellation of public comment hearings, a key aspect of the NEPA process.

According to  a report by the Associated Press, federal judge Miranda Du denied Fernley’s request for an emergency order last Friday to force the the US Department of Reclamation to extend a comment period on plans to repair the canal.

“We expect a record of decision this year at some point by the Department of Interior.  We anticipate that the preferred alternative will be a geo-membrane lining covered by concrete and replacement of old check structures in the Fernley area,” Jardine wrote.

According to more than one signed agreement, Fernley has the legal right to use Truckee Canal water for municipal uses.

The Ally repeatedly attempted to contact Federal Water Master Chad Blanchard by phone and email to no avail. Our question, balanced against the environmental health of Pyramid Lake, does using the Truckee’s water for showers, drinking water, and swimming pools in Fernley have a different water use priority than growing melons or alfalfa?

Should the Bureau of Reclamation approve Fernley’s request to take municipal water from the canal, the city will construct a brand new takeout in the general vicinity of the existing water treatment plant. Fernley City Manager Daphne Hooper expects the city will need the water.

“Fernley is, and has been a growing community. Oftentimes that growth comes in fits and starts, and is difficult to predict with certainty, but overall we do believe that water demand to grow in tandem with the growth of our community.”

Brian Bahouth has been a public media journalist since 1994 and has lived in Reno since 2000. He first came to northern Nevada to be news director at KUNR, Reno Public Radio and has subsequently filed scores of reports for National Public Radio, Nevada Public Radio, Capital Public Radio and KVMR in Nevada City, California. He is co-founder of KNVC community radio in Carson City. Support his work.