Category Archives: Drought

Lake Tahoe forecast to rise above rim

Lake Tahoe at Zephyr Cove Pier. Tahoe's water elevation on January 20 stands 7" below its rim so no water can flow into the Truckee River from the Lake.

On December 1 Lake Tahoe’s elevation was 6,221.47 feet. Today, the last day of 2015 Lake Tahoe stands 0.13 feet higher at 6,221.60 – still 1.4 feet below its rim (16.8 inches).  The latest forecast from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for Lake Tahoe indicates that it will rise above its rim allowing water to flow into the Truckee River at Tahoe City. Lake Tahoe has been below its rim since October 17, 2014. Previously, the Lake dropped below its rim in 2009.

Predicted runoff for the Truckee River Basin for 2016.

Predicted runoff for the Truckee River Basin for 2016. The black line represents the “median” projected runoff.

The NRCS predicts that the Truckee River will flow at 98 percent of average for the forecast season. The Reno-Gazette Journal today reported that “[t]he forecast combines snowpack data with historical records to predict how much water people can expect to flow into Lake Tahoe and the region’s river.”

While there is more optimism about an average, or even above average, snowpack this year, where we will end up on April 1 is still unknown. We all hope that winter will continue to produce above average snow and rain.

Common Goldeneye duck on the Truckee River near Idlewild Park, Reno

Common Goldeneye on the Truckee near Idlewild Park

Tahoe’s level still declining despite rain and snow

Tahoe got a slight up tick last Monday (11/2) from the storm which saw significant rainfall of nearly an inch in the Reno area.  It didn’t last, though.  In fact, Tahoe stands lower this Friday (11/6) than it did before the storm.  Of course, the snow and colder temperatures keeps the water in the mountains (which is a good thing), but the water that fell directly on the Lake as either rain or snow should have had a more upward effect, I would think.  Nevertheless, Tahoe is down now to 6221.7 feet – almost a tenth of a foot lower from just a little over a week ago. That means it must rise 15.6 inches just to reach the point at which water can begin to enter the Truckee River at “Fanny bridge”.  The storm was great, but it appears that we are going to need a lot more storms and a lot stronger storms than this one to dig ourselves out of the 15 year deficit in overall precipitation.

Lake Tahoe is still declining despite the early Nov storm.

Lake Tahoe is still declining despite the early Nov storm.

Drought through January 2016 for N. Nevada & California?

The latest forecast map from the Climate Prediction Center shows Northern Nevada and California in a “drought persists/intensifies” category through January 2016.  This seasonal outlook is an update from an earlier map which only went through December. The report accompanying the map has this to say regarding California and the Sierra:

October 2015 through January 2016 drought outlook

October 2015 through January 2016 drought outlook

“For the Southwest, El Niño associated climate anomalies favor an enhancement of the early wet season. Therefore, drought improvement is favored across central and southern California. There is greater confidence for improvement across the coastal regions and valleys, whereas significant improvement across the Sierras relies on colder temperatures to support substantial snowfall.”

El Niño strengthens in Pacific; forecast for wetter winter increases in California & Nevada

The LA Times reports conditions are increasingly favorable for a wetter winter in California and Nevada.  The Time’s report is based on the NOAA Climate Prediction Center’s map for the 3 month outlook from January through March 2016.  The most likely increase in precipitation is 60% or greater in southern California from Los Angeles and across southern Arizona.  Further north, however, the probabilities drop off to around 30% in northern California and Nevada.  Reno appears right at the 40% contour line. Temperatures are also forecast to be above average.  Today’s Reno Gazette Journal also reported on the El Niño phenomena that a wet winter is coupled with a forecast for above normal temperatures that will potentially impact snowpack. This El Niño is being compared to the winter of 1997-98 due to the similarity of the strength of the warming in the central Pacific Ocean.

NOAA precipitation forecast map for Jan-Mar 2015 (10-15-15)

NOAA precipitation forecast map for Jan-Mar 2015 (10-15-15) [Click to see full size]

The map is divided into 3 broad categories indicating “above” normal (A), “below” normal (B), or normal (N).  The map to the right is the latest 3 month outlook map for Jan-Mar 2016 (doesn’t show an “N” category), but does list “EC” that translates to “equal chances” of above, normal, or below average precipitation.  So for the Reno area, the current probability of above average precipitation is about 40%, the probability of average precipitation is 33.33% and the probability of below average precipitation is 26.67%.  In the best of all worlds that would mean a 73.33% chance of average or above average precipitation for the prime part of the winter season.  However, we are much closer to the “EC” category than to the “A” category which has equal weights for A, B and N at 33.33% each.  What will actually happen, of course, will only be known when April 2016 gets here.

The drought outlook for the next three months, October through December 2015, remains droughty with higher than average temperatures.

Truckee River water use and Governor Sandoval’s Drought Forum

On the same day that the RGJ published the lead story about Governor Sandoval’s executive order creating the “Nevada Drought Forum”, the Governor also featured prominently in, “A top water user, Sandoval taking steps to cut back” as one of the top 150 household water users in the Truckee Meadows topping out at over 1,000,000 gallons in one year.  The Governor immediately said that he was moving to reduce water use in his Reno residence. A local landscape company employee took some of the blame for the excessive use saying, “It was watering way more than it should have.”  The Governor’s Reno residence includes an outdoor swimming pool and large areas of landscaping according to the RGJ.

Water runs off over-irrigated lawn in Reno

Water runs off over-irrigated lawn in Reno

The Governor isn’t alone in using more water than necessary (a million gallons of water would produce 6 cuttings of alfalfa on an acre of land).  Although I doubt that any of my neighbors are in the million gallon water user group that the Governor was, some are using plenty more than they need to.  I say that because a several properties in my northwest neighborhood regularly allow water to flow down the street and into the gutter.  That isn’t water they need – obviously.

Cutting back on water use means first that we recognize when we are wasting water.  TMWA does have some suggestions on how to cut back, but do we need remedial training so that we can understand what excessive water use and waste actually looks like?  I think that for many water use is just not on their radar screen – too many other priorities.

Water runs off over-irrigated lawn in Reno

Truckee River depleted of its flow at the last water intake for the TMWA

Most of us think that if water is coming out of the tap or spraying out of the sprinkler, no problem, right? It can be difficult to associate the water we use in our houses and on our yards with the river – the Truckee River – whence it came.  But every gallon you use in the Truckee Meadows (and many who live in the north valleys, too) comes from the Truckee River.


Galena Creek at Washoe County Galena Creek Park, Spring 2014

Galena Creek at Washoe County Galena Creek Park, Spring 2014

What about groundwater wells, you say?  Ditto.  Our groundwater wells in the Truckee Meadows are primarily filled from the river or its tributaries. Water flows from the western mountains through natural creeks and streams and ditches carry water around the entire valley from the Truckee River providing a way for streams to recharge the groundwater. In the Truckee Meadows itself, our annual precipitation at the airport averages only 7″ a year while evaporation is about 40″.  With so little rainfall in the valley, it is the river and its tributaries that mostly fill our groundwater wells.  Prior to explosive population growth and the ill-advised 1960’s era flood project that destroyed the Vista Marsh on the Truckee, the water table was very high.  Flood irrigation of meadows and pastures through out the “Truckee Meadows” helped to keep it that way. It is safe to say that we are completely dependent on the Truckee River for our water here.

The RGJ article on the largest water users says, “the average household uses 124,000 gallons per year”.  The 2010 census says that the average Washoe County household has about 3.2 persons making the daily water use about 106 gallons per person.  Other cities in the west and southwest use significantly less water with better outdoor landscape ordinances, with Tucson, AZ averaging about 70 gallons per person per day.  If Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks adopted landscape ordinances and incentives to encourage water conservation we could reduce our use by more than 33% in wet and drought years.  So instead of using 20 billion* gallons of water per year, households could reduce that to 13.4 billion gallons saving almost 7 billion gallons per year.

*I made this calculation: According an estimate of the 2013 census figures for Washoe County there were 163,198 households.  So, using the average water use statistic quoted in the RGJ article (which most likely came from TMWA) that would be 124,000 gallons/household X 163,198 households = 20,236,552,000 gallons of water.  Let’s say 20 billion gallons of water (billion with a “b”) or 61,400 acre-feet.  (The number doesn’t include commercial or industrial water users.) 

What can we do to save that water?  The list is long, but key among them is to reduce the amount of turf in your yard beginning with the front lawn.  Businesses and housing developments line streets and common areas with strips of turf that few use, but are big water users (and wasters because it is difficult to water narrow strips of turf).

Strip lawns are big water users with runoff from the narrow strips common.

Strip lawns are big water users with runoff from the narrow strips common.

Could that be a accomplished to save water in cities and towns throughout Nevada? We will have to wait to see what the Governor’s Drought Forum comes up with on a state-wide basis by November (Click here to see the Executive order).  The Forum is top heavy in bureaucrats and includes the huge water agency from Las Vegas, the Southern Nevada Water Authority.  On the positive side, it also includes scientists from UNR and DRI.  Who else?  That remains to be seen since the Governor is yet to announce any citizens interested in conserving water resources statewide.

The Governor’s Drought Forum is expected to produce a list of recommendations and a “Drought Summit” with stakeholders in September of this year.  I’m sure that cutbacks in domestic use will be proposed. How will the Drought Forum address the severe drought in the Truckee River?  Statewide? We all need to be concerned if the forum proposes to create more “storage” in the form of additional reservoirs on already stressed rivers and streams in the region.  Storage can be effective when there is occasional drought, but more reservoirs will likely be ineffective in long-term drought.  In the western climate existing reservoirs are already taking a big chunk out of available water through evaporation.  Mountain reservoirs in our region evaporate at least 3 acre-feet of water per acre of exposed surface.

A better choice for “saving” water is to recognize first that we have allocated too much.  This becomes especially apparent during long-term droughts.  “Water rights” that Truckee Meadows industrial and commercial, residential, and agricultural users technically have don’t actually exist this year.  Agricultural users will probably get less than 1/5th of their “water rights”.  TMWA users are being asked to cut back “at least 10%”, but unstated is that TMWA isn’t actually using all of its “water rights” and that much of those “water rights” couldn’t be delivered because there is physically no water available.  Emphasizing the point that water here is over allocated is that most irrigation ditches will likely be dry by June.  Last year they were dry by August.  Hopefully, this isn’t a trend.

Truckee River in downtown Reno

Truckee River in downtown Reno

Water here is always in short supply.  Western Nevada is a desert that happens to have a miraculous river delivered to us from California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to our west.  We are indeed fortunate to have this river that sustains us.  Will we be up to the task to keep it flowing?