Walker Basin Conservancy AmeriCorps member walking through an old field at Flying M Ranch, Walker River State Recreation Area, prior to restoration planting in fall 2019 - photo: Walker Basin Conservancy

The  East and West forks of the Walker river begin in the Sierra Nevada. A few miles south of Yerington, Nevada, the rivers come together to create the the Walker River. The Walker River terminates in Walker Lake.

The Walker River basin includes nearly 4,000 square miles and 7 hydrographic areas. Over the past century, diversions of water for agriculture in the Smith and Mason valleys has caused Walker Lake level to drop more than 150 feet. The lake is no longer biologically viable, and as a recreational attraction, the now saline lake holds little allure for swimmers.

The Walker River watershed – map: United States Geological Survey

The Walker Basin Conservancy is committed to getting more water back in the Walker River and Walker Lake. In addition to corralling more water, the group is working to restore native habitat on thousands of acres of land along the Walker River. 

The Conservancy’s team has been working for over a year to collect native seeds in the Walker River basin and cultivate them into shrubs and forbs (wildflowers), genetically adapted to survive in the very dry climate. 

After as many as two years of growth in a nursery, the plants are now ready to be transferred into fields the group is restoring to establish wildlife habitat.

Throughout October, 50 Conservancy staff and AmeriCorps members will plant 8,000 shrubs across more than 100 acres.

Research shows that non-native plant species are having negative effects on the biodiversity of the Great Basin, and that includes the Walker River watershed. 

The continued expansion of annual grasses such as knapweed, medusahead, red brome, and especially cheatgrass, have resulted in habitat loss and other ecosystem changes, many of the effects as of yet unknown.

One study indicates that perennial pepperweed and Tamarisk may be contributing to the decline of many native plant and animal species associated with riparian areas across the Great Basin.

Jeff Bryant is the executive director of the Walker Basin Conservancy.

“Ground Zero, there’s just a very short supply of native vegetation for rehab work like what we do in the Great Basin,” Bryant said by phone. “Not only where we’re working at in the Walker River watershed, but also further out into the Great Basin and other land managers, the federal agencies, state agencies, there’s just not enough supply of native plants or native seeds to do the work they need to do well.”

Invasive plant species are a big problem across the Great Basin. According to a 2005 assessment of threats to sagebrush habitats in Great Basin ecosystems, there are more than 200 species of “conservation concern” to include 133 plants, 11 reptiles and amphibians, and 63 birds and mammals.

Walker Basin Conservancy AmeriCorps crewmembers removing invasive Russian thistle from native shrub plantings as part of old field restoration at Flying M Ranch, Walker River State Recreation Area – photo: Walker Basin Conservancy

The USDA estimates a total of nearly 3 million acres of cheatgrass monoculture in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington combined. The agency approximates that cheatgrass is currently a major understory component on nearly 14 million acres, and the estimate for future domination is another 62 million acres.

Rehabbing the Great Basin is a Sisyphean chore. Jeff Bryant is realistic and understands the scope of the problem, but the need for more native plants and seeds is a foundational activity.

“We have talked internally. I am by no means a scientist but I do work in the field. The cheatgrass is pretty well established and what can we do with it, but the scale of it is absolutely something to keep in mind.

“Where our efforts originated was rehabilitating approximately 15,000 acres right now and are struggling to get the resources we need, which is why we decided to do it internally, to make sure that we can get the plant resources. But when you take that and add another zero or two onto the end of it, it’s quite overwhelming. There is quite a large task at hand here.”

The same field at Flying M Ranch as above after planting native shrubs, seeding native grasses, and irrigating. Summer 2020 – photo: Walker Basin Conservancy

The Walker Basin Conservancy is not working alone. 

“There is actually a national movement with federal land management agencies, so there’s, for instance, Nevada, there’s a Nevada Native Seed Coalition,” Bryant said. “It’s made up of various nonprofit partners like ourselves … it has the Nature Conservancy, the Great Basin Institute, but also state and federal agencies. So the (Nevada) Department of Agriculture Department, DCNR, so Conservation Natural Resources, the BLM, Forest Service, you’ve got the (US) Fish and Wildlife Service. There’s a lot of individuals that are part of this effort to try to put together a strategy on increasing those resources for rehab work throughout the West.”

Propagating native plants takes time and a well-calculated plan. The plants being planted this month in the Walker River basin have been more than a year in the making.

“What we’re doing right now to propagate some of the plants, the plants that we’ll be putting in the ground here this month. Our crews went out and collected all of those seeds that we have permits from the BLM and the appropriate agencies to collect them. 

“We take them back. Some need to be stored, so maybe we need to reintroduce a superficial way of dormancy for these, some of these seeds. But from there, we do take them, we propagate them and we have a greenhouse that we do all that in, and we’ve got a larger facility that once we get them propagated as a very tiny seedlings, we’re able to move them into larger pots. That process takes a little over a year to get them ready, before they’re ready to go into the ground.”

Earth Day 2020-Native shrubs in the shade tunnel awaiting planting at Pitchfork Ranch, Walker River State Recreation Area, Spring 2020 – photo: Walker Basin Conservancy

The Conservancy has been buying water rights from willing sellers, and water rights typically come with land. The goal is to put that water back into the river, but Bryant said the group is intent to wisely rehabilitate former agricultural lands in the Walker River basin. 

“When you buy water in Nevada, especially in a very arid climate like ours, oftentimes, it’s going to come with a lot of land,” Bryant said. “And so we end up owning a lot of land. We work with state agencies to open up some of that, create new public lands, and use a park, for instance.”

The Walker Basin Conservancy facilitated the recent creation of a new Nevada State Park, known as the Walker River State Recreation Area. The Nevada Division of State Parks manages the new park along the East Walker River in Lyon and Mineral Counties. The park provides 29 miles of shoreline on the scenic East Walker River. The park includes the former Pitchfork ranch, Rafter 7, Flying M, and Nine Mile Ranch properties.

Funding from the Desert Terminal Lakes Act helped procure the properties the Conservancy deeded to the state.

“As we pull that water off of the land, all these acres that have been farmed for decades, or in some cases over a century, we need to be very responsible in how we’re doing it. One simple line that I usually share with my staff, if they’re new, or even talking with some of our other constituents that we can’t solve one ecological disaster by creating another one. So we can’t just buy the water, pull it off the land and send it down to the lake. We need to be responsible stewards of what we’re doing with the land and how we affect the basin as a whole. We need to keep the basin as a whole, live and healthy. The lake is going to win. The river is going to win. Agriculture is going to win. It’s going to be best for everybody.” 

But to successfully rehab former ag land and other areas of the watershed, the need for native plants is distinct. Money can’t solve the problem in that there is no place to readily purchase climate-adapted, native plants with so few groups working to actually identify native plants species and propagate them.

Walker Basin Conservancy AmeriCorps crewmembers planting a quailbush hedgerow as part of old field restoration at Pitchfork Ranch, Walker River State Recreation Area – photo: Walker Basin Conservancy

The Walker Basin Conservancy is taking a systematic approach and working to solve problems.

“We invest a lot of time, energy, and money into making sure that we’re rehabbing these ranches appropriately, reintroducing native ecosystems to them. We struggled to get the resources that we need. So that’s where the problem first came on our radar as an organization, at least. 

“But then it forced us to kind of take a step back once we realized, ‘oh, we have a solution. We have land. We have areas that we can grow out native plants appropriately.’

“How do we take this to the next step and not just solve our problem? How do we become a resource once we fulfill our need for native vegetation with native grasses, the native seeds and turn around and offer that to other public land agencies? That’s kind of the road to get there is using these ranches for the best public use that we can really.”

The Walker River basin and Walker Lake is the third-largest watershed in the State of Nevada and an ideal proving grounds for native plant development models that would be suitable across the cold desert region of the Great Basin and beyond, a template for natural resource use that accounts for economics and the ecological health of the watershed.

“One of the things we have with it being a closed basin, it is a very stressed basin, there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of demands on the river. If it’s agriculture or environmental or wildlife or even recreation, that water is the lifeblood of that entire basin. 

“But because it is kind of that closed system, we can really take it and create almost a textbook example of what we’re doing. As we move forward into the future, as climate change becomes more and more of a reality and what we’re looking at, not just through our Conservancy lens but a broader scale. 

“We know the future is going to be dry, arid, it’s gonna be hot. And so if we’re finding solutions here in this basin, there’s a lot of diplomacy that goes on. There’s a lot of interaction that goes on between a lot of the users in the basin, and it’s a very vocal basin that yeah, I do think it is a textbook example of how to potentially resolve problems into the future. There is a good opportunity here to set a precedent.”

The shortage of native seeds across the Great Basin is well-known among western wildland scientists. There are several causes of the onset of invasive plants, but the shortage has become even more pointed since the frequency, intensity and size of wildfires has been on the rise. More wildfires mean more land in need of restoration. 

Restoring lands with native plants has several important benefits to include wildfire resilience, reduction of invasive species, and the creation of historically appropriate habitat for endemic wildlife.

“The largest cause for the need for these native plants or the native seeds is wildfire. This year is a banner year for a good example of why we need to do this. You’re talking millions of acres in some seasons that need to be rehabilitated. 

“And oftentimes those seeds, because of the shortfall, they’re either bringing in seeds propagated through cooler wetter climates that are not quite adaptable, so they’re not going to have the same survival rates. And even times just in a way to avoid cheatgrass is one of the big number one enemies against wildfires out there. We’re at times introducing even non native vegetation. It’s just the lesser of an evil, if you will.”

To help fund or participate in the Walker Basin Conservancy Native Plant-a-thon, see more information here.

Brian Bahouth is editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media producer. Support his work.