In response to drought, the Truckee Carson Irrigation District (TCID) will get 70 percent of it’s annual allotment of water in 2021.
Not too far from Pyramid Lake, the Derby Dam diverts water from the Truckee River into an open, earthen canal that flows some 40 miles to Lahontan Reservoir where it mingles with water from the Carson River. From Lahontan, the canal flows on to Fallon and ultimately the Stillwater Marsh.
The TCID operates the Derby Dam as an agent of the US Bureau of Reclamation. They also represent 2,500 water rights holders along the vast system of water distribution. To administer and maintain the system, the TCID employs about 55 people directly and has an annual operating budget of $3.5 million.
The federal water master based in Reno administers the Truckee River Operating Agreement and decides how water from the Truckee is distributed.
“In this cycle, our water users will have a 70 percent supply,” said Rusty Jardine, general manager of the TCID. “What that means is, there’s almost a 1 to 1 correlation between water supply and the impact on productivity. We’re talking about 30 percent less in the pockets of the folks who are depending on irrigated agriculture for their way of life.”
There are roughly 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.
Use the interactive map below to explore the Truckee Canal system. The blue star marks the location of the Derby Dam. The gold star marks the Carson River. The red stars mark the canal.
According to the Nevada Department of Agriculture, agricultural activity 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. Thirty percent of that total is nearly $52 million.
“We function on the premise that our contribution to the economy in general terms is in the realm of hundreds of millions of dollars. So that productivity loss is the same as saying we’re loosing tens of millions of dollars,” Jardine said.
Livestock, poultry, and their products make up roughly 66 percent of total Churchill County agricultural 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.
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.
The High Cost of Efficiency
Cutting the supply by 30 percent does provide opportunity for greater efficiency. At the field level, according to Jardine, farmers line ditches when possible and laser-level fields for optimal water distribution. But the system is old, a registered historical landmark. President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Federal Reclamation Act into law in 1902. The Derby Dam and Newlands Reclamation Project opened in 1903.
Ideally, water would be distributed through a closed system of pipes, but according to Jardine, the cost of such an upgrade could only be met with the help of the federal government.
“It’s an open channel system. It’s not the most efficient in the world. The problem is, that because of the small nature of our user base, can you image coming up with hundreds of millions of dollars to provide for the highest level of conservation? We just cannot sustain that kind of outlay. We can’t ask our water users to do that.
“Quite honestly, we labor with the open-channel system we have, unless or until we have some kind of congressional assistance, we’re simply going to have to bump along as we do,” Jardine said.
In 2008, a small portion of the Truckee Canal burst, and nearly 600 homes were flooded in the desert city of Fernley, Nevada. Since then, the US Bureau of Reclamation has proposed a plan to line the canal as it passes through town, but the City of Fernley has filed a lawsuit to prevent the repair.
The city contends the National Environmental Policy Act process was flawed and more, according to Jardine, they rely on the inefficiency of the canal to recharge the local aquifer, which the city uses for municipal purposes.
“The Truckee Canal as it flows through the City of Fernley provides a great amount of water to the underlying aquifer, recharging the water table there,” Jardine said. “The city is saying, ‘Look, we rely upon that, so if you go ahead an lined over the top of this canal, it’s going to affect the connection between surface and ground water.’ And that really is what the whole thing is about.”
Lahontan Reservoir is a central part of the TCID system where Truckee and Carson River water come together. When full, Lahontan Reservoir holds nearly 12,000 acre feet of water.
“With regard to this 70 percent season that we’re currently in, what that means at the end of the day is, we will probably draw Lahontan Reservoir all the way down to what we call the minimum pool, so that’ll be about 4,000 acre feet of water. And that’s right at the very bottom,” Jardine said. “And that’s in a effort to, we preserve that level for, among other things, we don’t want to move any sludge through the system, but it helps preserve the life of the fish species that’ll remain at the end of the water season.”
But Jardine says Churchill County farmers are resilient and endured the drought of 2015 when the TCID only had a 21 percent water supply. The looming concern for Jardine is if next year and the year after that are as bad if not worse than 2021 regarding water supply. A sustained drought over years could spell catastrophe for Churchill County agriculture.
“My concern is that next year’s water supply will even be less. I hope that’s not the case. I’m hoping against that kind of condition but I fear it. We hope Mother Nature will intervene and provide us with a bountiful water year, but it’s kind of looking the other way at this point.”
Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media journalist. Support his work.