Monthly Archives: March 2015

Truckee Meadows drought: tepid TMWA response, deja vu

Washoe Lake nearly dry in March 2015. Washoe Lake is in the Truckee River watershed.

The Truckee Meadows Water Authority seeks a 10% reduction in water use from all its water customers sighting exceptional drought conditions and sooner reliance on its private drought reservoir storage and local wells. As reported on Fox Channel 11 the drought is “worse then (sic) expected”, according to an unnamed TMWA spokesman, “but, the good news is there will be enough water to get through this year.”

Demands on the Truckee River exceed the rivers ability to keep up. The river is particularly stressed during droughts which could become more common.

Demands on the Truckee River exceed the rivers ability to keep up. The river is particularly stressed during droughts which could become more common.

So defines our water supply strategy, “pray for snow”.

All TMWA customers are under the same voluntary call for water reduction. TMWA recently added about 23,000 water customers when it absorbed Washoe County Water Resources and the South Truckee Meadows General Improvement District. Last year TMWA didn’t ask customers to reduce water use by 10% until nearly August.

While the ten percent reduction is called for across the board of all TMWA customers, it isn’t clear how TMWA will report or monitor how customers respond. Further, the call for voluntary reduction fails to recognize that some are very large consumers of water – especially for outdoor watering – while many customers use significantly less water.  The call for a 10% water use reduction by all customers in August, September and October of 2014 actually resulted in a 7.5% reduction or about 1,100 acre-feet according to TMWA. It remains to be seen whether people will respond for an entire spring, summer and fall season with reduced water use. A couple of days of thunderstorms in August 2014 bringing significant rain to some areas in and around the Truckee Meadows could have helped TMWA achieve the reduction.

TMWA’s call for a cutback of 10% in water use doesn’t address the waste of water that is common throughout the valley.  Automatic sprinklers are notorious for wasting water in my neighborhood with obviously broken pipes, poor installations, and way too long cycle times that lead to serious overland flow into the street.  Reports of these problems to TMWA has yet to yield any fixes since early last summer.  Will TMWA begin to address water waste this year?  

As we move into uncharted territory this summer and fall with a 7% of normal snowpack at Lake Tahoe, the public discussion of growth and water use seem to be far away.  

Waterdownthegutter copyAn RGJ editorial “A low-snow future? We need to Talk: Our View“, raises questions about our current drought and its implications for our water future: “This could be just another wild swing in the Sierra Nevada’s historically fluctuating weather.  Or it could be a sign of things to come?”  Indeed, I’ve posed a similar question in one of my blogs:. The RGJ points out several facts which point in a very troubling direction for our region’s water supply:

  • 120 years of records show the average statewide temperature has risen 3.5º F

  • every year since 1999 had above average temperatures

  • ski areas are closing earlier than ever – even large ski areas like Sugar Bowl on the western slope where huge snow totals were common

  • snow levels have risen 500 feet in elevation in the last 30 years

  • Lake Tahoe will likely not rise above its rim in 2015 sending no water into the Truckee River

  • the average daily minimum temperature in Tahoe City increased 4.2º F in 100 years

What the RGJ failed to mention is also significant.  For example, to most of us who pay attention, the drought has been with us for 15 years with 2 wetter years interspersed.  Or put another way, western Nevada has had 13% above average or wet years and 87% below average or dry years in the last decade and a half. 

Could a shifting climate, warmer winters and summers, and prolonged dry periods change both the way we live as well as dry-up our rivers and lakes? It is going to take serious changes to our water use if the last 15 years are the new “normal”.

The news from the last month gives us a taste (an unpleasant one at that!) of what may become our water future. 

Washoe Lake nearly dry in March 2015. Washoe Lake is in the Truckee River watershed.

Washoe Lake nearly dry in March 2015. Washoe Lake is in the Truckee River watershed.

 

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Reflections on Pyramid Lake exhibit opens at the UNR’s Knowledge Center

The new exhibit at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center opened last night to a packed house in the Wells Fargo Auditorium.

Attendees enjoyed the stories by native-language specialist Ben Aleck and presentation of cultural and environmental issues by Ralph Burns.  Both are members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.  Bernard Mergen, who grew up on the shores of Pyramid Lake and is a professor emeritus at George Washington University, offered an historical perspective on Pyramid Lake’s people, the Truckee River, and Pyramid Lake as an icon of western expansion.

Bernard Mergen (Emeritus Professor George Washington University), and Ralph Burns and Ben Aleck of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe offer unique perspectives and stories about fabled Pyramid Lake.

Bernard Mergen (Emeritus Professor George Washington University), and Ralph Burns and Ben Aleck of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe offer unique perspectives and stories about fabled Pyramid Lake.

The exhibit features “paintings, photographs and other artifacts such as cradleboards, baskets, pelican eggs and a rattlesnake from Anaho Island,” according to a press release from UNR.

Reflections on Pyramid Lake Exhibit at UNR Knowledge Center: Tim O'Sullivan photo of Pyramid Lake's Pyramid in 1867

Reflections on Pyramid Lake Exhibit at UNR Knowledge Center: Tim O’Sullivan photo of Pyramid Lake’s Pyramid in 1867

Derby Dam (1905) diverts Truckee River Water away from Pyramid Lake

Derby Dam (1905) diverts Truckee River Water away from Pyramid Lake

Reflections on Pyramid Lake Exhibit at UNR Knowledge Center: Pyramid Lake's Pyramid in 1967

Reflections on Pyramid Lake Exhibit at UNR Knowledge Center: Pyramid Lake’s Pyramid in 1967

The exhibit is open now through September 2015.  It is well worth a visit to UNR’s Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center.  Paid parking is available on the top floor parking garage on N. Virginia Street.  More information: contact Donnelyn Curtis at Special Collections & University Archives, 775-682-5668 or dcurtis@unr.edu

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Possible “Worst Drought in 1200 years” hits home

Despite the brief “ArcStorm” of early February, streams and lakes throughout Nevada and California are shrinking under returned dry weather. Drought conditions have persisted now since 2000 with two above average precipitation years occurring only in 2005 and 2010. I’m writing this in early March 2015 and the prospect of a large series of storms is not on the horizon.

Meanwhile the US Drought Monitor shows large swaths of California and Nevada in the 2 most severe drought categories. In Nevada, 48% of the state is classified as under a “extreme” or “exceptional” drought – the two most severe categories of drought. One year ago that figure stood at 33%. Even more of California is in those categories at 67% – a slight increase from last year. The Sierra Nevada Mountains, the primary watershed for much of California and western Nevada rivers and lakes, is entirely within the “exceptional” drought classification. Sierra snowpack stands at 20% of normal – the second lowest measurement on March 1 since record keeping began in 1950.

Drought Monitor 3-3-2015

Drought Monitor 3-3-2015

However, the length of the drought certainly is approaching – if not already exceeding – an historic level at 15 years. The cause of the drought is pegged on the persistent high pressure ridge west of the coast of California in the eastern Pacific. The question for scientists and public alike resounds: “Is the drought the result of increasing Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere and increasing temperatures world-wide?”

A new study published in the Journal of Science Advances by NASA scientists says that a “megadrought” will hit the US southwest and central plains later this century and remain for decades. The Washington Post, reporting on the NASA study, quoted Jason Smerdon that after 2050, there is “overwhelming evidence of a dry shift, way drier than the mega-droughts of the 1100s and 1200s. [The cause] is twofold, reductions in rainfall and snowfall. Not just rainfall but soil moisture … and changes in evaporation that dry out the soil much more than normal.” The article quotes Marcia Kemper McNutt, a geophysicist and editor in chief of the journal Science, “We are facing a water situation that hasn’t been seen in California for 1,200 years.”

http://www.climatecentral.org/news/400-ppm-co2-february-2015-18710

Pyramid Lake offers ample proof of an extended drought with steeply declining lake levels since 2000.

Westerners face severe changes in the natural environment as drought continues, since most water resources are already allocated to human uses. Reduced river flows from poor winter snowpack impact Nevadans with dropping levels at Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe, dry stretches on the Truckee River as well as the Carson River and Walker River. Wetlands at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge have already shrunk significantly and negatively affect spring and fall waterfowl and shorebird migration. Pyramid Lake has fallen more than 25 feet in elevation during the 15 year drought. Currently, most of the water in the Truckee River (about 2/3 of the flow) is diverted to farmers in Fallon because the drought has almost dried up the Carson River which under normal snowpack supplies much of the water for farmers.

A Stanford University study just released reports that the most severe droughts in California occur when conditions are both dry and warm and global warming is increasing the probability those two weather events will occur together. As reported in USA Today, the study led by Stanford scientist Noah Diffenbaugh who also said that very dry and warm years together would not occur without humans increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. His study, questioned by some because of its methodology and findings, projected there will be more dry and warm years occurring together in the future.

While it isn’t clear if human-caused climate change is a significant factor in the present drought, it is clear that if it does persist longer, all of the west will face serious consequences. Western fish and wildlife populations could see significant losses as streams, lakes, and wetlands disappear under warm and dry conditions. Likewise, agriculture throughout the west will see declining productivity – even complete loss in some cases. Recreation, a strong and increasingly important economic force in the west, will likely shrink with the dwindling lakes and rivers.

ClimateCentral.org published this graphic from  Scripps Institute of Oceanography showing Carbon Dioxide above 400 ppm.

ClimateCentral.org published this graphic from Scripps Institute of Oceanography showing Carbon Dioxide above 400 ppm.

Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is now above 400 parts-per-million – the highest level in at least the last 800,000 years according to Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Levels during those previous 800,000 years ranged from under 200 ppm to highs around 300 ppm. Scientists link warming temperatures to rising Carbon Dioxide levels and studies and models show that rising temperatures tend to make wet places wetter and dry places drier.

We could be in for a long dry spell.

Truckee River, March 2015 - flows of 290 CFS through Reno are substantially below normal river flows.

Truckee River, March 2015 – flows of 290 CFS through Reno are substantially below normal river flows.

[An excellent article online by National Geographic on the California drought and it causes, “Lack of Snow Leaves California’s ‘Water Tower’ Running Low”, is well worth reading.]

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