Category Archives: Conserve

American Dipper in the Truckee

American Dipper at Idlewild Park in Reno January 3, 2015

Ever see a small dark bird bouncing on rocks then diving into the water in the Truckee?  Most likely you’ve spied an American Dipper called by some a water ouzel.  Dippers are quick to disappear on their dives and can reappear elsewhere in the stream with amazing speed.

Today we took a walk along the river at Idlewild Park and were happy to spend some time watching a dipper doing its bouncing dance along the rocks (and ice) in the river.  Dippers have been known to nest under bridges in downtown Reno.  They are commonly seen also at Mayberry Park.  They can be found year round, but easier to see, I think, in the winter.  Here is a short video showing their typical behavior.

Normal drought or climate-change drought?

The snow pack for the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe is below normal for the end of December– again.  The Reno Gazette-Journal reported the Truckee River basin snowpack at 67% and the Lake Tahoe snowpack at 44% of “normal”.  December and January are usually the heavy lifters when it comes to providing the bulk of the moisture collected in the Sierra Nevada.  What the rest of the winter has in store for us remains an unknown.

Scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Minnesota reported December 4, 2014 that the current California Drought is the worst in 1,200 years (at least).  The scientists analyzed growth rings on Blue Oaks growing in California to reach that conclusion and implicate human-caused climate change as the reason.  While droughts have always occurred, the current one is worse because of both increased temperature as well as decreased precipitation.

An icy Truckee River flows into Pyramid Lake on New Years Day 2015.  Pyramid Lake levels have fallen dramatically since 2000.

An icy Truckee River flows into Pyramid Lake on New Years Day 2015. Pyramid Lake levels have fallen dramatically since 2000.

Forbes published yesterday an article “No doubt it’s a climate-change drought, scientists say” quoting Jonathan Overpeck with the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona saying, “Of course everyone knows California’s drought has been for three years, rain so far has been helpful, there’s a snowpack in the Sierra Nevada’s that is about 50 percent of normal thanks to recent precipitation, but that hasn’t stopped the drought. The drought is still going to be the story at the end of the year, I think.”  He went on to say, ““To frame the drought we should be mentioning that much of the southwest and west has been in drought now for nearly 15 years, since 1999…”

While many in Nevada (and California) are hopeful that this year will see a turn-around and we’ll see above normal winter snows by the 1st of April, the last 15 years should give us pause for expecting that the drought will simply end and everything will return to “normal” in the long-run.  Climate change is the new dragon in the room.

December 30, 2014 Drought Monitor Map

December 30, 2014 Drought Monitor Map

Gambling on Truckee Meadows water supply

Truckee River at the Plaza in downtown river in August 2014

On Sunday, September 28, 2014, the Reno Gazette-Journal published a headline story by Jeff DeLong: “Cusp of a Crisis” laying out the uncertain future for Reno-Sparks water supply.  Therein the Truckee Meadows Water Authority says it is relying on the “history” of the Truckee River to “pop us out of this drought cycle.”

But as we’ve written before, can we really rely on the past flows of the river to predict the future as each decade is warmer than the last?  Delong provides the stats demonstrating that the concern for water supply is real, but doesn’t write how the community will deal with it.  TMWA seems to be just spinning the roulette wheel.

  • Lake Tahoe at 1.2″ above its rim (Sept 30, 9 cubic feet per second (CFS) flows out)
  • Boca, Stampede, and Prosser Reservoirs at 19%, 25%, and 26% of capacity
  • TMWA’s drought storage reservoirs Donner and Independence at 66% and 91% of capacity (which in actual water is a little less than 22,000 acre-feet)
  • Customers reduced their use – TMWA claims by 10% saving 1,150 acre-feet – but leaves out if this is compared to last year or last month
  • The river at Farad is flowing at 100 CFS and 57 CFS through Reno (“normal” at Farad would be 5 times greater at 500 CFS).
  • TMWA serves 93,000 customers – 73,873 residential customers have water meters
  • Washoe County Water Resources Department and South Truckee Meadows General Improvement District will soon be merged into TMWA giving it 115,000 customers (basically, all the houses and businesses in the Reno-Sparks area)
  • 4,469 residential customers are still on a “flat rate”; they pay $100.63 per month regardless of how much water they use

Delong reported that Mike Carrigan, who serves on the TMWA board, favors requiring all TMWA customers be metered – especially important now that the drought has so reduced water supplies.  Water meters for all customers are long overdue. Delong wrote that the average flat rate customer (not metered) uses more than twice as much water as an average metered customer – 282,000 gallons compared to 124,000 gallons – per year presumably, although it isn’t stated in the article.

There are some big water users out there, too.  In 2013 one residence used 6.1 million gallons of water and another used 4 million gallons.  The 91st person on the list used nearly 900,000 gallons in 2013.  Should a single residence be using enough water to support 50 residential customers?  Should there be no limit for water use as long as the customer can afford it?

As interesting as reporting the top 100 water users is, the real issue is that the more water all of us use, the less water is available for the Truckee River which is the keystone of our community and the life-blood for fish and wildlife from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake.

River at John Champion Park in mid-August 2014

River at John Champion Park in mid-August 2014

While meters are critically important to any water conservation program, without the proper rate structure and commitment by the water agency to set the rates to conserve water, customers have no reason to think about how much water they use. We discussed before that the current metered water rate structure does little to conserve water.

No one knows what the weather will bring this winter; and that’s just the point.  With our high per person water use, Reno-Sparks residents are victims of the gamblers mantra: “I’m feeling lucky.”

Is that a good way to run a community?

RGJ identified that some excessive water use comes from an unsuspected leak. Suspect a leak indoors or outdoors at your house is wasting water?  Call the Truckee Meadows Water Authority at 775-834-8005 to set up a water audit or if you’d like to try to find a suspected leak on your own go to TMWA’s website here.

Water for Tesla?  Not a problem?

American White Pelicans at Pyramid Lake. Pyramid Lake has fallen more than 25 feet since the drought began in 2000.

When you think of an industrial facility such as the Tesla Lithium Battery Gigafactory, it is easy to overlook the need for water to run it.  But most places that make things need to use water at some point in the process.  The Tracy power plant east of Reno is an example.  It is located on the Truckee River because to make power you need water for both the steam-powered turbines and for cooling. How much water will the Tesla Lithium Battery Gigafactory require every year? Will Tesla’s gigafactory recycle water and have little net use of water?  Or will it require lots of water?

The proposed Tesla Battery Gigafactory designed to match the 2013 world-wide output of lithium batteries by 2020. The gigafactory is now slated for Nevada's Storey County in the TRI Center.

The proposed Tesla Battery Gigafactory designed to match the 2013 world-wide output of lithium batteries by 2020. The gigafactory is now slated for Nevada’s Storey County in the TRI Center.

On September 5th, Mark Robison of the RGJ wrote an article “No water worries for Tesla at Reno industrial park.”  Therein he quotes the owner of the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Park (TRI), Lance Gilman, as claiming he has ample water.

“We’re really not impacted by the drought situation,” [Gilman] said. “Our water source appears to be incredibly stable and we haven’t seen a change in it at all (during the drought). We can pump 2 to 3 million gallons a day or more under today’s capacity and that’s, of course, expandable dramatically.”

In a more recent RGJ article on Reno’s potential lack of sewer capacity, it said TRI would like to receive water from the Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility.

” The Tahoe Reno Industrial Center has already expressed interest in the effluent. The Regional Plan, however, prohibits the gray water from being shipped out of the service area.”

The TRI facility lies within the Truckee River watershed and groundwater or surface water use will impact the Truckee River and Pyramid Lake and communities east of the Truckee Meadows.

The Truckee River in September 2014 below the Glendale TMWA Treatment Plant is mostly dry.

The Truckee River in September 2014 below the Glendale TMWA Treatment Plant is mostly dry.

How much water Tesla needs and where that water will come from did not appear to be part of the decision-making process for Governor Sandoval’s negotiators.

It should have been.  The Tesla deal could cost us a lot more than the negotiated $1.25 billion.


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

How bad is this multi-year drought?  With 67% of Nevada in either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought – the two most severe drought categories – it’s bad.  For western Nevada rivers and the fish and wildlife, farmers, and western Nevada city folk dependent on those rivers, it is even worse.  The Truckee River watershed in western Nevada and eastern California’s Sierra is firmly in the grip of an “exceptional” drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

August 19, 2014 Drought Map of Nevada

August 19, 2014 Drought Map of Nevada

Reduce outdoor water use by 10% and water responsibly this summer message from Truckee Meadows Water Authority

Reduce outdoor water use by 10% and water responsibly this summer message from Truckee Meadows Water Authority

If you live in Washoe County, chances are you have gotten a notice in your most recent TMWA (Truckee Meadows Water Authority) bill to “Please reduce your watering by 10% and use water responsibly this summer.” As I’ve written before, I’m concerned that the message really doesn’t make much of an impact and doesn’t really address the severe problems of the over-allocation of water resources in western Nevada.

Low flows at Rock Park on the Truckee River August 18, 2014.

Low flows at Rock Park on the Truckee River August 18, 2014.

Right now – today – all the Truckee Meadows ditches are 100% dry.  Boca Reservoir is at 18% capacity and declining. Lake Tahoe is a mere 6 inches above its rim and dropping about an inch every week.  Pyramid Lake has fallen over 20 feet in elevation since the drought began in 2000. The Truckee River at Farad just over the border in California is down 64% to 180 CFS (cubic feet per second) and the river is flowing at half that through Reno and even less through Sparks.(Flows at Farad are down 64% from mid-July due to depletion of water in upstream reservoirs – Tahoe, Prosser, Boca, and Stampede.  A 20 foot drop in elevation at Pyramid Lake represents a deficit of around 2 million acre-feet.)

Reno Thunderstorm August 11 2014

Reno Thunderstorm August 11 2014

Some of us in the Truckee Meadows got a nice break from the not-to-dependable northern Nevada monsoon rain which aided our yards and gardens.  But it didn’t break the drought – not by a long shot.  While some of us did take advantage of the rain and turned off our sprinklers for a week and a half, mostly folks continued to water as if there was no rain at all – including sending water down the gutter aplenty, TMWA’s message notwithstanding.

Water pours into the gutter from excessive watering in August 2014.

Water pours into the gutter from excessive watering in August 2014.

The message from TMWA is a weak one.  TMWA says it has plenty of water in storage and we should not worry.  Asking for us to voluntarily reduce our use by 10% and “water responsibly this summer” is hardly responsive to the current drought and its severity.

“Water Responsibly This Summer?”

Should we be watering “irresponsibly” when summer ends?  How about next summer?  last summer?  It seems like an odd message at best.  And, it doesn’t say anything about efficiency or conservation.  Rather, it implies that efficient use and, heaven forbid, conservation, isn’t needed here in the Truckee Meadows when it comes to outdoor watering unless TMWA is using its drought reserves.

TMWA argues that we should “reduce” our use because now we’re using our drought supplies in two upstream reservoirs (Donner and Independence Lakes). Water in these reservoirs doesn’t have to be released until there is a “need”.  Before the end of July TMWA was just using “rights” to the flows in the Truckee River which were running around 500 CFS at Farad, California.  That “water right” to take water from the Truckee River became just a “paper water right” when the flows dropped off – because, the water simply isn’t there.  So, to be able to take water from the river, TMWA must release stored water into the Truckee River from its drought reserves or pump more from wells in the Truckee Meadows.

TMWA Sparks Truckee River Treatment Plant Intake

TMWA Sparks Truckee River Treatment Plant Intake

TMWA argues that is why these reservoirs are there – namely, to handle droughts and they’ll fill again even if the drought continues as long as customers reduce outdoor use 10% and do nothing to conserve water indoors.  Efficiency and conservation are mentioned in the context of indoor watering, and here, TMWA says, there is no more to be done, thank you very much.

What is needed, as I’ve written before, is a short and long-term plan to encourage indoor water efficiency and outdoor water conservation through water efficient plantings and the reduction of lawns — you know, turf.  This should be encouraged not only to conserve Truckee River flows to benefit fish and wildlife, but also to keep our lakes and reservoirs as full as possible to keep our recreation economy afloat during dry times – like now.  The lakes and rivers we all love can’t be healthy as long as we stress them during both good times and bad.

Can TMWA rise to the occasion and call for water efficiency and conservation as a simple fact of living in one of the driest places on earth?  TMWA’s conservation web pages do discuss good ways to conserve water and there is a guide to establishing a yard that conserves water.  Is there any incentive for a home owner to follow these suggestions?  TMWA and its governing boards aren’t encouraging conservation through rates or other incentives.

More to be said later

Rates are a complicated matter and most people probably pay little attention to how much their water bill is – perhaps because it is less than their cell, telephone, or cable bills.  While this topic is deserving of it’s own two or three articles, here is a brief explanation of how residential customers of TMWA get charged for their water and why it doesn’t encourage conservation.  Unlike many western desert cities, TMWA has only a 3 “tier” residential rate structure (see sidebar on below).

Residential customers in a single billing period are charged $1.72 for the first 6,000 gallons of water or "tier 1"; $2.78 for 6001-25,000 gallons or "tier 2"; $3.25 for all usage over 25,001 gallons or "tier 3".  "Base" water use is considered 6,000 gallons or less per family or household per billing period.

Residential customers in a single billing period are charged $1.72 for the first 6,000 gallons of water or “tier 1”; $2.78 for 6001-25,000 gallons or “tier 2”; $3.25 for all usage over 25,001 gallons or “tier 3”. “Base” water use is considered 6,000 gallons or less per family or household per billing period.

 The 3rd tier doesn’t kick in until your water use exceeds 25,000 gallons in a billing period (typically 30 days or so).  And while the percent increase in water cost between tier 1 and tier 2 is a significant 62%, the difference in charges between water usage in the 2nd and 3rd tier amount to a only a far smaller 17% increase in cost per 1000 gallons.  The other obvious problem for conservation? Use in tier 3 can be 25,001 gallons or 250,000 gallons or 2,500,000 gallons and the rate  stays the same.   Effectively, the largest water users aren’t penalized for using lots and lots of water.  Is that a way to achieve “responsible” use of water?  Does this rate structure encourage conservation of water and wise use of water?  Not so much.

Will TMWA customers reduce their use by 10%?  They may, but all of us can do much better.  One reason there isn’t noticeable water conservation in the Truckee Meadows is that a serious conservation message from our water agency and its governing board is mostly non-existent.  That needs to change.