Going Dry

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

At the end of July, flows in the Truckee were reduced to 200 CFS at Farad in California from 500 CFS earlier in the month.  As promised in an early summer opinion piece, the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA) CEO requested that residents in the greater Reno-Sparks area reduce water usage by 10%.   Going along with TMWA’s call, the Reno-Gazette Journal editorialized that we need to cutback to preserve our drought storage in TMWA’s privately owned reservoirs such as Independence Lake.

Truckee River nearing a flow of 100 cfs on August 1, 2014.

Truckee River nearing a flow of 100 cfs on August 1, 2014.

While we certainly agree that residents need to cutback in water use, these calls for a 10% reduction are too little too late.  We all treat water conservation in our community, unfortunately, as a “work-in-progress” required only because of the “drought” – as an unwelcome, distasteful footnote to daily life.  The reality that we have a perpetual “drought” simply because we live in one of the driest places on earth is rarely mentioned as a prime reason to conserve and efficiently use water.  With an annual precipitation amount barely 7″ a year, Reno falls squarely in the category of a true desert.

As a consequence of the diversion of water to the Chalk Bluff Water Treatment Facility in northwest Reno, flows in the Truckee River through the city are now reduced to 100 CFS.  The Chalk Bluff Water Treatment Facility provides water to a good portion of the city and water diverted from the River to this facility goes through a large pipeline to Stead, too. Water supply plants remove more water for the Sparks area reducing the river to a trickle and the real possibility that the river could soon dry up above the regional sewer treatment plant for at least a couple of miles.

With Truckee River flows so low, diversions from the river to the many area ditches are stopped resulting in many dry ditches.  Recently, fish were being transported from the drying ditches to ponds to prevent them from dying from the loss of water.  Many residents probably aren’t aware that Virginia Lake, Paradise Ponds, Manzanita Lake (at the University), Herman Pond (at Rancho San Rafael), Fuller Lake (Lakeridge) all get water from the Truckee River through ditches.

Highland ditch dry beginning of August 2014

Highland ditch dry beginning of August 2014

Once the river flows decrease due to loss of storage in reservoirs in California, no more water is available to fill the water rights associated with these ditches.  That’s not a 10% cutback.  It’s not a 50% cutback.  It is 100%.  No water, period.

In the last fourteen years, we’ve had 11 years drier than the “long-term average”.  Yet, we are only now hearing any call for conservation.  Are residents being lulled into a false sense of security? How will our public officials and water agency respond when another dry year could result in a water shortage crisis?  Is this responsible water management?  What happens to the natural water features which make this area attractive to visitors and residents alike?

Our entire region has relied on the “wet” year to make up for our over-use of the Truckee River and tributary streams and lakes every year.  Too many leaders of our communities remain unconcerned as our area’s natural lakes suffer under a perpetual man-made drought.  We’ve come a long way in the last 25 years working to improve and enhance the Truckee River, Pyramid Lake, and Lake Tahoe.  Conservation and efficient use of water throughout the region must be added to our efforts.

We need an efficiency and conservation oriented water agency to accomplish new and achievable conservation goals.  Conservation needs to become not just a once-in-a-while call from an agency CEO and instead be ingrained into our daily life.  Saving water needs to be couched in different terms than simply a burden on hard-working families.  Is it a “cutback” in our water use or is it a way to preserve flows in the river?  Is it a slightly browner lawn or an opportunity to see an extra foot of water elevation at Pyramid Lake?  Is it a problem that your front lawn isn’t bright green on a 105 degree day or an opportunity to put in front yard landscape that doesn’t require weekly mowing?

So far our community has approached conservation as a “problem” requiring “cutbacks”.  That is exactly the wrong approach.  Water conservation must be a way of life in the desert and we should not forget that we live in a desert.

Common Merganser in Truckee River

Common Merganser (female) can be found on the Truckee RIver during the winter and spring months.

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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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