New water demands could threaten the Truckee River.

Demands for water are increasing with ever more development in Reno and Sparks, the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center (TRIC), and other industrial growth in Washoe, Storey, and Douglas Counties. Meanwhile, historic uses of the Truckee River in the Truckee Meadows continues as well as the diversions to the 110 year-old Newlands Project which takes Truckee River water out-of-basin to Fernley and Fallon. The project, the first of the Bureau of Reclamation, was originally intended to supplement water from the Carson River for agriculture, but now is increasingly used for housing and industrial development.

Developers and decision makers see no problem as more and more water is consumed by growth. Conserving water and holding water use constant through water efficiency and desert landscaping should be required in our desert climate.

Residential water running into gutter in August 2018

And the region continues to warm bringing an urgency to the need for water conserving landscaping. The result of our current development standards is that more and more water is consumed by growth each year and water conservation to keep water use constant or reduced is pretty much non-existent.

The dream of a sprawling city around the Tesla Gigafactory.

Recently, the New York Times reported that a millionaire wants to build an “experimental community spread over about a hundred square miles, where houses, schools, commercial districts and production studios will be built…” in Storey County in and around the TRIC industrial park. Such a venture would require, presumably, a large water supply. Yet, the area is in a desert region that is drier than Reno and has no water rights – or actual water for that matter. Where would the water come from? In October 2018 Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, said he wanted his 10,000+ employees at the Gigafactory to be able to live there and walk to work.

Water pipeline sought for TRIC, Tesla, and others in Storey County.

In mid-October 2018, the plan to send 4,000 acre-feet annually of reclaimed wastewater via a 13 mile pipeline from the Truckee Meadows Wastewater Reclamation Facility (TMWRF) to the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center (TRIC) hit a funding snag when key companies dropped out of the agreed to funding package. Originally, the funding was to come from a tax assessment district with the State of Nevada subsidizing the pipeline – a plan criticized by people from both Storey and Washoe Counties. While the planned pipeline is still in the works, many questions remain. The original plan didn’t call for any payment for the up to 1.3 billion gallons of replacement water according to Assemblywoman Benitez-Thompson (RGJ 9/5/18). There didn’t appear to be any requirements restricting the use of the reclaimed water to industrial facilities Could Storey County use the the water for housing developments with additional treatment?

The pipeline was described as a win for the Truckee River because the water quality would improve. The pipeline would take reclaimed water to TRIC for industrial uses and after use would be held in a recreational lake where the water would evaporate. By keeping the 4,000 AF out of the river, Truckee River water quality would be improved, the argument goes, and additional treatment facilities at TMWRF wouldn’t be needed to clean it up. However, to keep the Truckee River “whole” replacement water would have to be found to make up for the 4,000 AF that doesn’t return to the Truckee River at TMWRF.

Image of the Truckee River from TMWRF in Washoe County to the TRIC in Storey County. Officials have agreed to pipeline despite a lack of transparency on replacement water for the Truckee River. (Click for full size)

Two potential sources for replacement water (quoted in the RGJ article) were from the State of Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) which has “1,500-2,000 Acre-feet (AF)” of water rights and “1,500 AF” of water rights that the TRIC has. However, it isn’t clear that the NDOT water really would be true replacement water. Is NDOT using that water now? Or is it already flowing unused in the Truckee River. Likewise, TRIC’s water rights may also not be in use and already flowing in the river. Would this be replacement water? Or just “paper” water?  Also, when would that water be available for use? Every year? Some years? Drought years? It depends on the priority date of the “replacement” water right whether this water would actually be equivalent to the water which is regularly available from TMWRF. In any event, the total mentioned would only be 3,000 to 3,500 AF of “replacement water” and short of the 4,000 AF called for in the original pipeline funding agreement.

Finally, what will be actual size of the pipeline ultimately constructed? Will it be sized for a maximum of 4,000 AF? Or will it be capable of carrying more water? What will the agreement ultimately allow for diversion? Would future diverted water also require “replacement water” for the Truckee River? The details of the agreement leave many questions unanswered for the public. Anything which reduces flows in the Truckee River is a potential threat the health of the river, Pyramid Lake, and Pyramid Lake’s Paiute people as well as all downstream water users.

Housing developments are expanding and new ones planned despite opposition

Housing developments are expanding and growing in Spanish Springs, throughout the Truckee Meadows, Lemon Valley and pretty much no area is immune. Plans are to develop a 5000 housing project on the Butler Ranch – a traditional flood plain of Steamboat Creek which is tributary to the Truckee River. This development is likely spurred by the construction and recent completion of the “Southeast Connector” road. Other developments outside of the Truckee Meadows on the California border south of Bordertown is planned also for 5,000 houses. Each development impacts water availability for existing residents so long as water conservation is not part of the requirements for development. Costs for water are distributed throughout all customers.

Federal Government part of problem

In August 2018 the Bureau of Reclamation called for more upstream reservoirs on the Truckee River to address securing water supply for irrigation and M&I uses due to climate change and  warming temperatures.  There are already 3 large reservoirs on the Truckee River in addition to dams on Sierra Lakes that turn  Donner Lake and Independence Lake and Lake Tahoe into reservoirs . Additionally, Martis Creek is dammed for flood control. Together these reservoirs already store more than 2 years of the long-term average flow of the Truckee River. And during the last drought period most reservoirs had little water to no water to send downstream. Additionally, TMWA owns Independence Lake’s water and the dam there stores additional water for its customers to be used during drought.

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

Lake Tahoe Dam at the outlet to the Truckee River

In our dry climate reservoirs consume water through evaporation – year round. Storing water in reservoirs or lakes allows an extended runoff period  over several years, but less water overall is available for the river and the downstream environment as a result. Every drop of water stored in a reservoir upstream means less water to benefit the Truckee River and Pyramid Lake overall. More dams are not a solution to the problem of water supply and increasing temperatures, but would increase the damage on the Truckee River ecosystem already stressed by the existing dams, diversions, and canals. Instead, conservation of our existing water supplies through reduced demand will improve our water outlook as many western cities have already determined.

Solutions are out there

Solutions to the ever growing problem of overuse of our fragile river and lake ecosystems can be addressed with effective water conservation measures, new building codes, and preventing development on our watershed lands. Our master plans often address the need for these measures, but effective implementation is missing and our public elected officials are too influenced by the development industry. It is long past time to begin reducing water use throughout the Truckee Meadows and beyond to save the Truckee River’s unique place in the world connecting two spectacular lakes – Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake.

Lake Tahoe is the 2nd deepest lake in North America and is the source of the Truckee River. (click for full size)

Pyramid Lake is Nevada’s largest lake fed by the Truckee River which flows from Lake Tahoe. (click for full size)

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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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