With Hoover Dam and Southern Nevada in the backdrop, the water-related headlines this summer are largely focusing on the Colorado River and cities like Las Vegas. However, the declines in flows and reservoir elevations are not just a trend in the southern regions of the Silver State. Western Nevada is in extreme drought conditions.
The diminishing flows on river systems and crashing levels at reservoirs are not endemic to the southwest. The waterways that serve the region –– The Truckee, Carson, and Walker Rivers –– are essential for urban and rural communities alike. And they are not in good shape this year.
Recently I hopped in a car with some friends and took a drive to document what’s happening on the ground. As the following photos and government data demonstrate, the impacts are salient. The juxtaposition of satellite imagery, flow data and photos help paint the picture that this year’s drought is not one that will be fixed with one big winter. Instead, we have to consider how we can conservatively move forward. If we think that we can continue to do business as usual, we are only fooling ourselves.
In the past three years, stored water at Stampede has dropped by more than 39 billion gallons. The Stampede Dam captures the Little Truckee River and purportedly serves as an important water supply necessary for threatened and endangered fish species like the cui-ui, an important fish for Indigenous communities downstream at Pyramid Lake and a barometer of the Tahoe-Truckee-Pyramid system’s overall health.
The construction of Derby Dam nearly drove the fish to extinction, and, despite water augmentation infrastructure like the reservoir, the federal government still lists the fish as endangered. As the graph below suggests, the driest period in the last two decades at Stampede Reservoir was in 2015. But this year doesn’t have us too far off with a few likely dry months to go until 2022.
Derby Dam diverts Truckee River water to Lahontan Reservoir. More than 70 percent of Lahontan’s water this year came from the Truckee River. The dam is essential for agricultural communities in Western Nevada. It has also caused longstanding harm to water levels at Pyramid Lake along with the wildlife and people who live there (Cui-ui and Lahontan Cutthroat Trout).
As a spate of proposals upstream in Reno to build more sprawling communities that will be dependent on the Truckee, this visual is one to keep in mind. This photo is of a channel off the main stem of the river. Right now, no water flows through it.
It is the lifeblood of the ag community in places like Fallon and a popular recreation area for many in the Western Nevada region. The Truckee amounted for about 70 percent of the reservoir this year. For all intents and purposes, it is now empty. A very small amount of water remains.
When visiting the reservoir, we stood on sand where a Google map depicts water. In early 2019, the reservoir held more than 239,000 acre-feet. As of mid-September 2021, it held less than 5,700 acre-feet. Saying there’s water in Lahontan right now is like saying there’s money in a savings account with $1 in it.
Carson River at Fort Churchill
The Carson River’s downstream flows are non-existent. The river is an important feeder to Lahontan Reservoir and a significant water source for rural communities, wildlife and plant life. The graph below isn’t missing data. It is a graph of instantaneous flow. As the photo demonstrates, there is no flow.
Walker River at Mason Valley Wildlife Management Area (Upstream of Yerington)
There was some water in the Walker River, another waterway with significant ties to Indigenous Communities and agricultural producers in Western Nevada. But it is a far cry from the big water years of 2011 and 2012.
As the USGS graph shows, we are not terribly far away from the low in 2014 when flows on the river above Yerington were at 0 cfs. The USGS estimates the river is flowing around 30 cfs per day (13,464 gallons per minute) – a far cry from the 159 cfs in 2017.
Little Washoe Lake
We ended our tour at Little Washoe Lake, a manmade reservoir that was known for its fishing (imported carp, largemouth bass, and catfish). Today it is empty. There is no need to showcase any data. The system is dead this year – like the remains of the carp.
A man-made diversion is delivering less water to the lake, which is a result of drought and infrastructure-related issues with the diversion itself.
With that said, Little Washoe Lake is a reminder that the man-made and natural water systems we once relied on are not indestructible.
Kyle Roerink writes columns on natural resource issues throughout Nevada and the West. Kyle is the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. He lives in Reno. Support his writing.
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