Nonpoint Source Pollution: killing the Truckee River by degrees

Leading cause of water pollution in Nevada poses complex problem and solution

Foamy effluent from the Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility discharges into Steamboat Creek just before it enters the Truckee River on the eastern side of the valley - photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

As more people move into the Truckee River watershed, demand for water is increasing while more and more nonpoint source (NPS) pollution is making its way to the river. Nearly half a million people get their water from the Truckee River, and nonpoint source pollution threatens the quality of not just the drinking water, but the greater ecosystem of the entire watershed.

Nonpoint source contaminants are the largest single source of water pollution in Nevada and across the nation.  Here in the Truckee Meadows, things such as fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, motor oil, engine coolant, septic tanks, chemical runoff , silt from erosion, and e. Coli bacteria, to list a few, all affect the overall quality of ground, surface, and ultimately, drinking water. 

NPS pollution accumulates in the Truckee River like a snowball rolling downhill, growing with each rotation. 

“Water flowing over the lands, not coming directly out of a pipe, is making its way into our waterways,” explains Birgit Widegren, the nonpoint source branch manager with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP), “either from storm drain inlets, or directly discharged into the waterways.” 

At numerous points along the Truckee River’s 125 mile path from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake, water is diverted from the river. A serpentine network of ditches, canals, and natural creeks wind through highly developed areas of Reno and Sparks before flowing into the Truckee laden with a complex mix of pollutants. Click on the colored areas in the interactive map below for more detailed information. This map is not an exhaustive visualization of NPS pollution sources for the Truckee River, merely a rendering of major sources. Use the scroll wheel on your mouse or the controls at the top left to explore the Truckee River watershed.

In 1985 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defined nonpoint source pollution as “runoff, precipitation, atmospheric deposition, drainage, seepage or hydrologic modification.” 

As water flows over the ground it dissolves and collects chemicals, solids, and other matter and flushes it into the watershed. Ultimately, this pollution gets deposited into lakes and rivers—and our water supply.

One of the most prevalent sources of NPS pollution in Reno comes from grass and lawns. Every year, potable water is sprayed through dry desert air onto untold tonnage of fertilizer and other chemicals spread across the region on decorative turf. 

“If you’re looking in a typical neighborhood, it could be over-fertilization [and] over watering,” said Widegren. This introduces nitrogen, phosphorus, and other chemicals into the waterways that compound in terminal sources, which can lead to toxic algae blooms.

Most storm drains in Reno enter the Truckee River untreated. The pipe pictured here channels runoff from a neighborhood adjacent to the river near downtown Reno. This pipe is tufted with bright green grass, evidence that plenty of fertilizer and other street runoff are making their way to the river – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

When nitrogen levels increase, we start to see overstimulation of aquatic vegetation. As these nutrients are elevated in the watershed there is an increase in the likelihood of algae blooms. Though rare in the Truckee River watershed, algae blooms steal oxygen and other nutrients from the water. 

“And that’s where you actually get a toxic algae that could hurt your pet or make people sick,” explained Widegren “[but we] don’t really have that in this area.” 

There have been recent algae blooms in Red Lake and Indian Creek near Markleeville, and in Pyramid Lake. 

Where is Pyramid Lake? The End of the Line, the Catchall

“In my young life, it’s been really important for me to educate people upstream, especially within the cities of Reno and Sparks,” explained Autumn Harry, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. 

Her father, the late Norm Harry, was a local advocate for water quality. He played a pivotal role in the adoption of the Truckee River Operating Agreement. This agreement “brought an end to historic uncertainty between Nevada and California over distribution of the river’s water, allocating 90 percent to Nevada,” according to the Truckee Meadows Water Authority website. 

Along its 125-mile route, a significant amount of water is still diverted from the river for domestic, industrial, and agricultural use. A major diversion is made at the Derby Dam near Pyramid Lake, where water flows into the Truckee Canal for agriculture and potentially domestic use in far-flung Fernley and Fallon. 

The tribe holds the oldest water rights on the river, and the Truckee River Operating Agreement ensures Pyramid Lake gets a carefully proscribed amount of water to protect both the endangered cui-ui and Lahanton cutthroat trout.  But the impact of regional development on water quality in the river is a worsening problem. 

“I’m seeing that there is a lot of privilege, just to be able to live within Lake Tahoe. You can use that water, but you don’t have to know where it’s going, because it doesn’t affect those people up there, you know, but we’re affected downstream,” elaborated Harry. 

Harry urges communities upstream to educate themselves about the unique watershed – to truly know where water comes from and where it goes when it leaves their homes. 

“Because when I talk to people there’s still so many people who haven’t even heard of Pyramid Lake,” she said. “Even when people are like, where are you from? And I said, I’m from Pyramid Lake, and they’re like, Where’s that? Well, it’s the terminal end of this watershed that you’re living on.” 

Using direct community action, Harry and her mother, Beverly have organized four river cleanups in the past couple of months. She said volunteers have focused on the east end of the valley. Most of the trash they have collected was near the low water level line in the river.

“Once that snow melts,” Harry said “those river levels are going to come up.” 

In just six weeks, Harry and volunteers collected and disposed of at least 320 cubic yards of trash, all paid for through donations. All this trash would have been flushed by the spring thaw and carried downstream. 

Effluent from the Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility mingles with the polluted waters of Steamboat Creek on the east side of the Truckee Meadows just before joining the Truckee River. The spray nozzles are spraying water meant to suppress foam – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Harry explained the tribal community has traditionally relied on fish for survival. And fishing remains a big tourist attraction on Pyramid Lake, but the tribe is concerned about desecration of the fish through nonpoint source pollution.

“If there’s an increase in pollution coming down the river, that could affect the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus, which could eventually affect the health of the fish. It’s become part of our cultural identity,” Harry said. “There’s all these factors that go into the protection of the fish because those fish are such a big part of our identity as people.” 

Being at the bottom of the watershed, we are an important stakeholder,” said Kameron Morgan, water quality manager for the Natural Resources Department with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. “Part of my job is to be a partner to the state, the federal government, to Reno and Sparks and work with those partners to ensure that their project is not going to have any major impacts on us downstream.”

According to Morgan, there was an algae bloom in Pyramid Lake last summer. This bloom prompted Morgan and his team to go out and collect samples to determine if any cyanobacteria, a type of blue-green algae that produces cyanotoxins, were present. In addition to test strips, small samples were sent to a lab in California for additional analysis. 

Free pet bags on the Hunter Creek trail. When pet owners do not pick up animal waste, it can pollute the watershed with nitrogen, e. Coli bacteria, and other contaminants – photo: Richard Bednarski

Initially, the test came back negative for the toxic bacteria. 

“About a week, maybe ten days later, there was a huge algae bloom on the surface of the lake,” Morgan said.

This prompted Morgan and his team to resample the algae. The test strips revealed the presence of deadly cyanotoxins. 

The levels were found to be above the threshold set by the World Health Organization (WHO), prompting Morgan to close public access to the lake. Pyramid Lake remained closed until samples revealed a reduced amount of cyanotoxins, as these present the greatest threat to human and animal health.

“Because Pyramid Lake is at the bottom of a terminal watershed, everything ends up in the lake from upstream areas,” Morgan explained. This results in some pollutants never leaving the lake, and an increase in total dissolved solids (TDS). These diverse particles suspended in the water directly impact the endangered cui-ui fish, a species located only in Pyramid Lake.  

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. Since the diversion began, Pyramid Lake level has dropped some 80 feet, and the adjacent Winnemucca Lake is dry – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

According to US Census data, the Washoe County population has increased from roughly 422,000 in 2010 to 486,000 in 2020, which is cause for concern for Morgan. He cited the industrial development happening in the USA Parkway area as a threat to water quality. While the chemical and industrial plants in this area do not necessarily dump anything into the water, “they have air emissions that have the potential to be transported to the water through atmospheric deposition,” said Morgan.

Pyramid Lake water quality has been monitored extensively since the early 1980s. Monthly water samples from the river as it enters the Pyramid Lake Reservation have been collected for over 20 years. “One parameter that is consistently impaired is temperature,” explained Morgan.

Urban development is increasing upstream from Pyramid Lake resulting in more and more impervious surfaces. Cement and asphalt lead to faster runoff and elevated stormwater temperatures. As river water warms, dissolved oxygen decreases, causing potential problems for fish. 

“Our temperature standard was actually developed to protect the propagation of Lahontan cutthroat trout,” said Morgan. 

The trout species require cooler water temperatures during the spawning season and into the summer, but the Truckee River has been consistently warmer over the past several years. 

Another source of NPS pollution Morgan identified is the presence of mercury from the legacy mining era below Virginia City around Little Washoe Lake. “That basically discharges into Steamboat creek and Steamboat leads to the Truckee river. One of our concerns is the development that is going on in the South Meadows because that area has flooded with waters containing mercury,” Morgan said. 

This is where the North Truckee Drain enters the Truckee River in Sparks, Nevada. In late February, the ditch is not flowing, but when it does, it delivers a chocolate brown stream into the Truckee after flowing through densely developed areas. The remnants of past years can be seen in the significant silt deposit pictured here – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Residential developments in this area have stirred up this sediment and created the possibility of redistributing the mercury downstream. Morgan is concerned about this mercury ending up in Pyramid Lake.

“Especially if it’s redistributed into a wetland-type environment,” Morgan explained “that’s when mercury can change into methyl-mercury and that’s when it’s bioavailable to the fish.” 

Morgan is currently working with the Bureau of Reclamation to remove a sediment island that has formed above Marble Bluff Dam. This island has blocked fish passage. Working with the Bureau of Reclamation on this ongoing project, Morgan said “they found elevated levels of mercury in all their samples.” 

Still in the early stages of the project, Morgan did not say what the next steps were. 

Solutions

“The leverage we have is our water quality standards,” said Morgan. “This helps keep developers upstream from creating any sort of development that affects the water quality. They have to ensure that their discharge is not going to violate our water quality standards downstream.” 

The Truckee River flows through downtown Reno and a whitewater park where many swim and kayak during warmer months- photo: Richard Bednarski

As more commercial and residential development is approved in the Truckee River watershed, Morgan wants the community to construct low-impact projects. Things like stormwater basins slow down water and better enable pollution to be filtered out before it enters the watershed. He also described the importance of stream buffers, essentially a natural area which keeps development away from the edge of the river. 

Nonpoint Source Pollution is Complex and Ubiquitous

Nonpoint source pollution is a complex issue with many stakeholders and community groups working together to mitigate the problem.  

“As long as we prevent the nonpoint source pollution,” said Widegren “it’s a high quality water source.”

One way NDEP is addressing NPS pollution is by studying the individual watersheds within the Truckee River basin. These are smaller watersheds composed of one or two tributaries that flow into the river. Creeks such as Hunter Creek, Chalk Creek, and Peavine Creek all move water and pollution into the Truckee Meadows. By studying these tiny watersheds, NDEP and river advocacy groups can identify key pollutants and zero in on the problems.

The Truckee River just east of downtown Reno, Nevada – photo: Richard Bednarski/the Ally.

Nonpoint source pollution comes from a dizzying number of sources, large and small, so solving the problem requires an equal number of preventive steps.

“Every single person in the Truckee Meadows can help prevent nonpoint source pollution,” believes Widegren. 

“The best solutions include all of the collaboration between these different groups, whether they’re governmental, or nonprofit, to implement the plan and implement the projects that are identified and prioritized through the plan,” said Widegren. 

Local nonprofit organizations such as Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful and Sierra Nevada Journeys are working to educate the public about nonpoint source pollution. 

The mission of Sierra Nevada Journeys is to “deliver innovative outdoor, science-based education programs for youth to develop critical thinking skills and to inspire natural resource stewardships.” The group has received several NDEP grants and works with school-aged children. They take them into the environment to teach them about the Truckee River watershed. On these excursions, children learn about water quality and what they do has a direct impact on the environment. 

“A lot of people still mistakenly think that our storm drains are linked to the wastewater treatment system,” said Widegren. “In fact, they are not and anything that goes down the storm drain will eventually find its way into the Truckee River.” 

Bird feces make the island in Virginia Lake a major source of pollution in the Truckee River watershed – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

“Everybody lives downstream from somebody,” explained Brian Beffort, the president of the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club. 

Echoing Kameron Morgan’s hope for more equitable and natural-focused construction upstream, Beffort believes individual community members can be part of the solution to reduce runoff and NPS pollution. 

“We need more green infrastructure,” he said. Things like natural landscapes, such as rain gardens and bioswales; channels designed to collect and move stormwater while also removing debris and pollution. While there has been some local interest in permeable pavement, Beffort said the biggest impact comes from creating green spaces around streets, parking lots, and developed areas. 

“Use nature and nature’s tools,” explained Beffort “to remove pollution.” He understands this is a broad issue not easily solved but that it “starts with each of us and that we look at our own property.” 

Beffort feels that the biggest impact an individual can have in addressing NPS pollution is to reduce the use of toxic lawn chemicals like Roundup. 

“Most people don’t think when they flush their toilet, take a shower, or water their lawn, where the water goes,” Kameron Morgan said “most watersheds end in the ocean, whereas the Truckee River ends up in Pyramid Lake.”

“I really want upstream communities to know where their water comes from,” said Autumn Harry. 

She hopes people can start to “know the traditional territories that you’re living on. I get that because of all of these different industries that are coming into northern Nevada like Tesla and Panasonic, it’s creating jobs and causing people to move here. But when people are moving here from other states or other places, they’re not realizing their own impact in moving to a place that’s so arid.”


Richard Bednarski is a freelance photo journalist and graduate journalism student at UNR. He focuses on crafting solutions and advocacy-based stories that move the community forward. Support his work in the Ally.