Category Archives: River Restoration

Human modifications of the river and its flood plain damaged the rivers ability to support fish and wildlife, protect water quality, and the ability of the communities to avoid catastrophic damage from naturally occurring floods. Restoration of a more natural river channel and maintenance of an open flood plain protects private and public infrastructure investments while protecting fish and wildlife and water quality.

“The Disappearing West”: NV ranks high in degraded rivers

“The Disappearing West”, a report produced by Conservation Science Partners based in nearby Truckee, documents the dramatic degradation of rivers in an interactive series of maps and animated illustrations. The report appears online at the Center for American Progress website.

Truckee River in downtown Reno trickles under the Virginia Street Bridge in late 2014.

A concrete walled Truckee River trickles through downtown Reno in late 2014.

The report attempts to map 300,000 miles of rivers and streams in the 11 western states and show the human impacts made to their flows and floodplains. The interactive map allows anyone to zoom in on any western state location and identify the extent of damage to large rivers and small rivers and headwater streams in mountain ranges from the Rockies across the Great Basin to the Sierra and Cascades. The map colors range from deep blue to fire red depicting a range from near natural condition to extremely altered or unnatural condition for either stream flow restriction or floodplain modification. Some states have far more severely modified streams and rivers than others. Overall, however, the west appears more red-colored than blue-colored with surprisingly small streams high in mountains suffering from flow reduction and floodplain modification. While the report offers a valuable tool to look at how our rivers and streams are suffering, we’ve discovered that reporting on the Truckee River flows below Reno-Sparks underestimates the severe dewatering of the river at Derby Dam.

A cautionary note: It could be that the report underestimates damage from flow reductions in other states if the Truckee River flow diversions were missed.

The report shows Nevada ranked 2nd in the major rivers and 3rd in the smaller rivers categories that suffer from flow restrictions, 94% and 31% respectively. Utah ranks first in reduced flows in major rivers at 96%. I used the “Disappearing Rivers” information to develop the bar graphs, presented below, ranking states by flow restrictions and floodplain alterations for major rivers.

Ranking of flow restrictions for major rivers by state

Ranking of flow restrictions for major rivers by state (based on information in “Disappearing Rivers” Report-DLG)

Ranking of floodplain alteration for major rivers by state (based on information in “Disappearing Rivers” Report-DLG)

Likewise, the report also shows Nevada 2nd in modification to major river floodplains at 73% and smaller river floodplains at 51%. Colorado ranks first in major river floodplain modification at 77%.

Reducing river flows and developing river floodplains can eventually kill riverine ecosystems by eliminating the riparian forest that grows along the stream, warming the stream from reduced flows, eliminating cold water fish and invertebrates that live in the stream as well as increasing pollution and reducing recreation.

The report separates the rivers and streams into categories: headwater streams with less than 6 cubic-feet-per-second (CFS), smaller rivers and streams between 6 CFS and 163 CFS, and major rivers with more than 163 CFS.² In Nevada, the Truckee, Carson, and Walker Rivers that originate in California’s Sierra Nevada all had historical average flows greater than 163 CFS. The Humboldt River which is entirely within Nevada also had historical average flows greater than 163 CFS. Today, the Truckee River is a mere trickle at Pyramid Lake when US Bureau of Reclamation diversions at Derby Dam take as much as three-fourths of its flow to farms in Lahontan Valley; the Carson River is essentially dry during many summer and autumn seasons before it reaches Lahontan Reservoir due to upstream diversions; and the Walker is often completely dry – sometimes for years – before it reaches Walker Lake. The Humboldt River, likewise, is more frequently dried out before it reaches Rye Patch Reservoir upstream of Lovelock.

Any measure of flowing water can take a little getting used to, but remember, the flow in a river or stream is measured by how much water (volume) is moving downstream over a period of time. It can be in gallons-per-minute or cubic-feet-per-second or acre-feet per year. The US standard way to measure flowing water in a river is CFS or cubic-feet-per-second.¹

Lower Truckee River flow restriction much worse than shown in “Disappearing Rivers” Interactive Map

The Disappearing Rivers analysis shows the lower portion of the Truckee River as having only 8% flow restriction in the lower River between Derby Dam and Pyramid Lake. Unfortunately, this is not accurate. The screen capture from the interactive tool shows the diversion at Derby Dam, but inaccurately says it is only 2,500 acre-feet. It isn’t clear where that number comes from.

Disappearing Rivers: screen capture of river tool's depiction of flow restriction of the Truckee River below Derby Dam is incorrect.

Disappearing Rivers: screen capture of river tool’s depiction of flow restriction of the Truckee River below Derby Dam is incorrect.

In fact, tens of thousands of acre-feet of water are diverted from the Truckee River most years and hundreds of thousands have been diverted in the 21st century alone. So, the representation in the online tool for the Truckee River flow restriction downstream of Derby Dam³ isn’t correct. The problem appears to be that the data used to model the restricted flow caused by Derby Dam doesn’t accurately reflect how much water is diverted on average over an entire year. Derby Dam itself, doesn’t store much water, but the effect of its diversion is the most significant loss on the entire Truckee River below Lake Tahoe.

Example display from the Disappearing Rivers Project interactive map (click for full sized example)

Example display from the Disappearing Rivers Project interactive map

Despite the problem I’ve identified where the Disappearing Rivers Map underestimates restricted flows for the lower Truckee River below Derby Dam, the tool remains valuable to show how our rivers have suffered from loss of flows and modification to the floodplains in Nevada and throughout the 11 western states. The tool affords even the casual user a stark window into the damage inflicted on our rivers from continually taking too much floodplain land for development and too much water from river flow.

In broad terms, the summary provided for the state of Nevada is sobering:

“In Nevada, 53 percent of all rivers are altered. That’s equal to 3,593 unnatural river miles— enough to cross the state more than 11 times. Of the 11 Western states in the Disappearing Rivers analysis, Nevada had the 5th most altered rivers in the West. When broken down by size, 96 percent of all major rivers, 64 percent of all smaller streams and rivers, and 36 percent of all headwaters are altered.”

How can we reverse continual losses of river flows and floodplain lands? Can society embrace increasing natural river flows and restoration of floodplain lands? Increasing population and climate change is making the job of fixing what ails our rivers harder. This report makes clear that in a little over a century, we’ve diverted at least 61% of the flow of our western rivers and negatively modified 63% of river floodplains. And, additional impacts to river flows and floodplains occur daily from the direct effect of development but also from climate change which is making the west warmer – and possibly drier as well. Few people want to have a dry Truckee River surrounded by parking lots and warehouses, but our representatives in federal, state and local governments seem to be taking us to just such a future. It is time to ask politicians to find ways to reduce the amount of water we take from our rivers and aquifers, protect our remaining floodplains, and restore our overdeveloped floodplains.

Restored oxbow of the Truckee River at the Nature Conservancy's McCarran Ranch.

Restored oxbow of the Truckee River at the Nature Conservancy’s McCarran Ranch.

There have been some restoration successes on the Truckee River over the past couple of decades. We have seen the restoration of several floodplain reaches of the Truckee River below Reno from Lockwood to the McCarran Ranch. The Nature Conservancy’s McCarran Ranch represents one of the earliest successful efforts to show how a degraded river can be transformed with a vibrant riparian corridor of wetlands and forest that can support spawning trout and a valuable recreational fishery and recreation. The Truckee River Water Quality Agreement between the Cities of Reno and Sparks and the Pyramid lake Tribe called for the cities to purchase water rights for the Truckee River to increase river flows during low flow. The Cities have purchased more than 11,000 acre-feet of water which can mean the difference between having a dry river and a wet one. The water purchased stays in the river all the way to Pyramid Lake.

Flows in the Truckee River can be greatly improved by reducing diversions from the river, improving farm practices, and increasing water conservation in cities and towns along the river.

Now is the time to make sure our rivers will not continue to disappear.


¹   [For people who like to think in gallons, there are 7.48 gallons in a cubic foot. For example, during February 2018, the Truckee River has been running between 350 and 450 CFS through downtown Reno or between 2,618  and 3,366 gallons per second.  You can check out the flow of the Truckee River every day in the RGJ newspaper on the weather page or look on the TROA website under daily report] 

²   6 CFS for one year is 11.9 acre-feet or 3.88 million gallons; 163 CFS over a year is 188 thousand acre-feet or 38.5 billion gallons. To offset the effect of evaporation from Lake Tahoe requires about 350,000 acre-feet of water each year above what flows out into the Truckee River; likewise, it takes more than 400,000 acre-feet of water each year to maintain Pyramid Lake’s water level.

³    Derby Dam on the Truckee River is the largest diversion on the Truckee River. The dam, completed in 1905, was the first project of the US Bureau of Reclamation called the Newlands Reclamation Project. While most people in Reno and Sparks have never heard of the project, it is responsible for the greatly reduced flows of the lower Truckee River downstream of the cities. The dam allows Truckee River water to be put into a 112 year-old canal, permanently removed from the Truckee River basin, and sent to farms on the lower Carson River’s Lahontan Valley. Once diversions began, Pyramid Lake and the lower Truckee River were sent into a steep decline. Flows in the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation‘s portion of the Truckee River were reduced to just a trickle. Any time during many years (flood years being the exception), a substantial portion of the water in the Truckee River as it flows through Reno-Sparks will end up in Lahontan Valley and not Pyramid Lake due to the diversions at Derby Dam. The dam at Lake Tahoe is also part of the Newlands Reclamation Project and the water stored in Lake Tahoe by the dam benefits farmers in Lahontan Valley. The Lake Tahoe dam can store over 700,000 acre-feet of water by raising Tahoe’s water elevation by up to 6.1 feet.

Derby Dam on the Truckee River diverts water to Lahontan Valley

US Bureau of Reclamation’s Derby Dam on the Truckee River diverts water to Lahontan Valley

Lake Tahoe Dam at the outlet to the Truckee River February 2015

US Bureau of Reclamation’s Lake Tahoe Dam at the outlet to the Truckee River

Brodhead Park east end goes to Riverside Park Apartments LLC

Brodhead Park is on the left side this image taken from the "old" Wells Ave bridge.
The Reno City Council unanimously approved using a 10,660 square foot portion of Brodhead Park adjacent to the Truckee River for an apartment complex (see our earlier post with maps and photos here). Below is today’s announcement from the City of Reno.

“Council approves Brodhead Park Boundary Line Adjustment and Improvement Agreement

J.10.1 – Council unanimously approved a Boundary Line Adjustment and Improvement Agreement to convey a vacant and undevelopable 10,660-square-foot portion of Brodhead Park between Wells Avenue and Park Street south of the Truckee River Bike Path to developer Riverside Park Apartments LLC, an affiliate of Hokulia Holdings LLC. The agreement requires the developer to use the property only for an infill apartment complex and convey to the City a 1,868-square-foot parcel adjacent to the Truckee River Bike Path and spend up to $75,000 for trailhead and bike path improvements.”

– January 25, 2017 Reno City Council Highlights 

Brodhead Park is on the left side this image taken from the "old" Wells Ave bridge.

Brodhead Park is on the left side this image taken from the “old” Wells Ave bridge.

Overhead view of property (right-most parcel outlined in black-white) to be transferred to developers for a new apartment complex.

Overhead view of property (right-most parcel outlined in black-white) to be transferred to developers for a new apartment complex.

Snowpack increases; wet storms forecast

Tundra Swans fly over the Truckee River at Pyramid Lake January 1, 2017.

2017 opened to cold temperatures followed by rain and today the first significant snow in Reno this winter. Since the beginning of the stormy weather here in the central Sierra surrounding Lake Tahoe, snowpack has gone from well below the 1981-2010 average to now above that 30 year average. Total precipitation, however, continues above average since October with at least one station around Tahoe currently reporting  greater than 170% of average.

The National Weather Service is forecasting more rain for lower elevations and snow in higher areas of the Sierra. “Heavy rain” is in the forecast for Saturday and Sunday for Reno.

Reno Forecast for Jan 7 to 9, 2017

Reno Forecast for Jan 7 to 9, 2017

Currently there are concerns about flooding on the Truckee River through the Truckee Meadows although flooding is expected to be only moderate perhaps similar to that experienced in 2005. Hopefully, damages will be minimal. While the community completed a flood management project proposal prior to 2005, it has still not been implemented in the Truckee Meadows.

The impact of heavy mountain snow and rain in lower elevations increases the likelihood that the Truckee River may see moderate flooding all the way to Pyramid Lake. Such an event should have a significant positive effect on the river environment by helping to restore meanders and provide new or rearranged gravel bars for seedlings of cottonwood, willow, and alder trees to become established. Areas that have been restored by the Nature Conservancy downstream of the Truckee Meadows using federal funding (think – Lockwood to the McCarran Ranch) could see even more benefits from high water that spills onto the restored flood plain.

The Truckee River meanders just before entering Pyramid Lake on January 1, 2017.

The Truckee River meanders just before entering Pyramid Lake on January 1, 2017.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it helps get the Truckee River up to and beyond its long term average flow for 2017. [Typically, the western water year is measured from October 1 to September 30; so the first full month of fall kicks off the water year.]

So here’s where we are today (January 5, 2017) with Lake Tahoe water level, Truckee River flows at 3 locations (taken early morning), and snowpack measurements and annual precipitation at 2 locations.  We’ll look again after the approaching storm is over next week.  [CFS stands for cubic feet per second and the percent of average is compared to the 30 year period from 1981-2010. “Snow water equivalent” measures the amount of water in a column of snow. “Total precipitation” is all rain and water content of snowfall, etc.]

Lake Tahoe water elevation

6223.68

8.2″ above rim

Truckee River Flow at Reno (changes daily)

722 CFS

Truckee River Flow at Tracy (changes daily)

1,480 CFS

Truckee River Flow at Pyramid Lake

1,360 CFS

Ward Creek site (848) at 6745 ft: Snow water equivalent in snowpack

13.3 inches

112% ave

Ward Creek site (848) at 6745 ft: Snowpack depth

72 inches

Ward Creek site (848) at 6745 ft: Total precipitation

48.4 inches

175% ave

Mt Rose Ski Area at 8801 ft: Snow water equivalent in snowpack

22.6 inches

154% ave

Mt Rose Ski Area at 8801 ft: Snowpack depth

103 inches

Mt Rose Ski Area at 8801 ft: Total precipitation

29.7 inches

143% ave

The Truckee River meanders just before entering Pyramid Lake on January 1, 2017.

The Truckee River meanders just before entering Pyramid Lake on January 1, 2017.

Truckee River at Rock Park in Sparks (flow is around 1,100 CFS)

Truckee River at Rock Park in Sparks (flow is around 1,100 CFS) on January 4, 2017.

One Truckee River Plan adopted by Washoe, Sparks, and Reno

Truckee River at 2nd Street in downtown Reno in June.

One-two-three – each of the local governments has now adopted the One Truckee River Plan when the Reno City Council unanimously voted for it on September 28. The Washoe County Commission and Sparks City Council approved the plan earlier this month. A year-long process established the plan with involvement of many citizens and groups and agencies from the community. The approved plan addresses numerous issues of the Truckee River (and tributaries) through the urban area of the Truckee Meadows.

Community members at the first "One Truckee River Plan" meeting in fall 2015.

Community members at the first “One Truckee River Plan” meeting in fall 2015.

The One Truckee River Plan phase one lays out goals for implementation as funding becomes available and a time-frame to accomplish them.

  • “Goal One: Ensure and protect water quality and ecosystem health in the Truckee River” has six specific objectives with more detailed sub-objectives dealing with storm water, watershed management, human impacts, trees and vegetation, wildlife habitat, and the proper functioning of the river and its floodplain lands to attenuate flooding.
  • “Goal Two: Create and sustain a safe, beautiful and accessible river connecting people and places” also has 6 specific objectives to address appropriate use and discourage illegal activities, promote planning and management between Cities and County, enhance public safety and access, ensure better transportation and restrooms, add public art and murals, provide housing for homeless and access to medical care as an alternative to living on the river.
  • “Goal Three: Create an aware and engaged community that protects and cares for the river” has five specific objectives to promote awareness and education of the river’s natural and cultural importance, increase student education and participation, add opportunities for activities for all, inspire culture of stewardship, and ensure easy access to information. The latter could include a Truckee River Visitors Center, a network of kiosks, encouraging collaboration to Native American cultural uses of the river, and opportunities to acquire land or protect natural or cultural resources.
  • “Goal Four: Create an aware and engaged community that protects and cares for the river” has four specific objectives to create a sustainable organizational model to make implementation of the plan successful, develop partnerships and raise awareness of the plan, bring in funding to support the plan, and improve our understanding of the condition of the Truckee River.

The One Truckee River Plan – OTR Plan – is probably the most comprehensive look, yet, at the needs of the Truckee River and how to make the river a better place to visit while improving water quality, safety, accessibility, and helping residents and visitors to understand what makes a river “healthy”.

Truckee River Walk along Riverside Drive.

Truckee River Walk along Riverside Drive.

Organizations which were key to pursuing and moving the plan to adoption are The Nevada Land Trust and Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful. The National Park Service helped with funding and local and state agencies along with the Reno Sparks Indian Colony and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

One of the key features to the plan is community education and involvement and that is always a positive to help make changes in the river corridor where they are very much-needed today. The next phase of the plan will address downstream of the Truckee Meadows where rapid development in Washoe County and Storey County continue to threaten the river and its vegetative corridor. Phase two of the OTR Plan may well be more controversial since industrial interests have dominated recently with construction of huge new buildings, roads, and bridges.

For now, we can celebrate a new approach to benefit our area’s most important natural resource – the Truckee River.

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

Truckee River, March 2015

 

“One Truckee River” Plan moving ahead

Spearheaded by the Nevada Land Trust and Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful with funding from the National Park Service, TMWA‘s Truckee River Fund, City of Reno, the Northern Nevada Water Planning Commission, and the Washoe County Ballot Initiative Question 1 fund, phase one of the “One Truckee River” plan is moving forward.  Stakeholder groups covering 9 issues are diving deeper into topics outlined in the first joint collaboration meeting held on September 30, 2014 at the McKinley Arts and Culture Center. Phase one of the plan covers 18 miles of the urban core of the Truckee River through the Truckee Meadows from Chalk Bluff to the Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility (TMWRF).

The goals of the planning effort are to create a common vision for the river, provide for comprehensive planning, a forum for collaboration & communication, coordinated action, and funding.

The 9 stakeholder groups tackle issues that are often interrelated and multi-jurisdictional. Dealing with river health, public safety, and water quality, for example, involves at a minimum, understanding how to solve problems ranging from encampments along the River to increasing biodiversity of riparian species and finding funding to accomplish them.

Outcomes from the 9 issue areas go next to the core planning team which will be meeting in February 2016.  OnStrategy will produce a draft plan based on stakeholder input by late spring 2016. Public open house meetings on the “One Truckee River” plan are now scheduled for mid to late summer 2016.

Find more on the plan and its goals at onetruckeeriver.org.onetruckeeriverplanningvisionsheet1