Drought and diversions dry up wetlands

Wetlands that normally have thousands of acres of shallow ponds and marsh lands are nearly completely dry.

Across western Nevada rivers and lakes are taking a big hit during the current drought, but wetlands rarely get a mention.  Wetlands at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge and Carson Lake and Pasture – managed by the NV Department of Wildlife (NDOW) and the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District (TCID) – sit at the end of the Newlands Irrigation Project fed from the project’s canals and drainage ditches.  Water won’t reach many of these wetlands this year.

I’m reporting information that I received from a conversation that took place on the Nevada Birds listserv managed by the Lahontan Audubon Society-nvbirds@lists.audubon.org as well as from personal observation in Lahontan Valley, the Truckee River, and at Pyramid Lake. Susan Sawyer, Visitor Services Manager, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge provided definitive information on the current plans for water deliveries to the refuge and beyond in Lahontan Valley.

A narrow strip of water is all that remains of the wetlands at Carson Lake and Pasture in Lahontan Valley in April 2015.

A narrow strip of water is all that remains of the wetlands at Carson Lake and Pasture in Lahontan Valley in April 2015.

“Carson Lake & Pasture (CL&P) opted not to take any of their water delivery this season…”, Sawyer reported.  The reasons I’m aware of are two-fold.  NDOW can’t get enough water to prevent nesting and resting waterfowl die-offs from botulism as the water dries up.  And the NDOW water will instead be retained in Lahontan Reservoir to maintain the fishery there.  I observed over the last month a rapid shrinking of shallow flooded areas in the CL&P and that the small amount of water has mostly evaporated with water persisting only in channels by the end of April.  The CL&P is a recognized Western Hemisphere Shorebird Preserve and did have some migrating birds in March and April before the water that remained from water deliveries in fall 2014 evaporated leaving most ponds and wetland areas desiccated.

Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR), Sawyer reports, are allowed 20% of their “deliveries”, like all water users in the Newlands Project.  While water was slated to arrive on April 15, it was reset to May 1 due to “canal construction”.  Most water users, including the Refuge, will get two water deliveries before water is cutoff in early June or “if TCID determines earlier.”

Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge had little water in late winter 2015.

Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge had little water in late winter 2015.

“All refuge water will go to the sanctuary (areas south of Division Rd) via the Center Canal system,” she writes, but “…[N]o water in Stillwater Pt, or even the small demo wetland at Tule Trail.  We have about 3000 [acre-feet] of water available this year, which equals about 18″ deep on the sanctuary ponds.  This is what is lost through evaporation during July alone, so with another 18″ lost in August, the refuge stands a good chance of being [completely] dry by Fall.”  She concludes by writing, “[n]orth of Division Rd (the open hunt areas) will not receive any water at all; S Nutgrass is a big mudflat now and will be dry by June. So our hunt program will be nonexistent as well.”

The wetlands are critical for many migrating shorebirds for feeding and resting, so with wetland areas dry they will be seriously stressed in late summer and early fall as they make their way south to their wintering areas in Central and South America.

Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge in Pyramid Lake provides nesting for the American White Pelican.

Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge (left-center) in Pyramid Lake provides nesting for the American White Pelican.

With little inflow from the Truckee River, Pyramid Lake will shrink further this year repeating a pattern that started in 2000 with little interruption.  Pyramid Lake is host to large numbers of migrating birds in the spring and fall.  Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge, an island in Pyramid Lake, is one of the critical nesting area for the American White Pelican.  Other nesting birds – snowy egrets, California gulls, double-crested cormorants, and great blue herons – find the Island “home” during the nesting season.  Dropping water levels at Pyramid threaten not only water quality at the famed lake, but also exposes more land making it increasingly likely that predators can reach the Island at some point in the future.

The Truckee River will likely receive no water from Lake Tahoe this year. The once rich wetlands of the Truckee River are gone because early settlers and those who followed them dried them up to support industry and agriculture and flood control.  Few alive today would remember the abundance of wetland birds found in the Vista Marsh of the Truckee Meadows and fewer still would remember the wetlands along the lower Truckee River and the now 75 years gone Winnemucca Lake – Pyramid Lake’s smaller cousin fed from overflows of Pyramid Lake itself.  The lower Truckee River had an abundance of bird species in its extensive riparian forest in the late 1860’s.  Just a short time later, 40% of those birds were gone.  The lower Truckee has never recovered from the damage inflicted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The two Google Earth images below demonstrate how dry western Nevada has become.  The top image is from 2006 and the image below it is 2013. To download the full-sized images click.

May 2006 Image showing more normal water conditions in area from Pyramid Lake in the NW to Carson Lake and Pasture in the SE of the image.

May 2006 Image showing more normal water conditions in area from Pyramid Lake in the NW to Carson Lake and Pasture in the SE of the image.

June 2013 Image showing dry conditions in area from Pyramid Lake in the NW to Carson Lake and Pasture in the SE of the image.  Today's image would show significantly drier conditions yet.

June 2013 Image showing dry conditions in area from Pyramid Lake in the NW to Carson Lake and Pasture in the SE of the image. Today’s image would show significantly drier conditions yet.

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About Dennis Ghiglieri

My concern for the Truckee River grew over the years. It started with picking up trash and supporting better water quality. I helped create the "living river"plan with other citizens on the Community Flood Coalition; a plan to reduce flood impacts to infrastructure through river restoration and protection of the floodplain. I understand how critical the Truckee River is to the environment – and economy – of our entire region. I'm hoping that through these pages we can all understand our connection to the Truckee River and why we need to protect it.

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