Truckee River flow cut earliest ever

Driving home the ongoing drought’s historic impact, the flows to the Truckee River from Boca Reservoir are being cut back substantially reducing river flows from 550 CFS (cubic feet per second) to around 250 CFS as of today. According to the RGJ (Drought cuts flow of Boca Reservoir) the Water Master for the Truckee River, Chad Blanchard, is reported to have said, “We are out of useable … storage, which is by far the earliest ever.”

Truckee River flows cut from lack of water

Truckee River flows cut from lack of water

The prior earliest date for such a reduction of flows in the Truckee River was June 5 in 1992 according to the article.  The dismal water situation occurs just as the entire west is living through the warmest January-February-March average temperatures ever recorded.  Lake Tahoe is 3 inches below its rim and no water has flowed from the lake since fall 2014. Tahoe is likely to drop significantly more through next fall.  Snowpack at Tahoe is now officially at 0% of normal.  Snowmelt in the past has often lasted well into summer – but not this year.

Flows in the Truckee River during the late spring and early summer are expected to come from Stampede Reservoir which is dedicated to maintain fisheries and provide a minimal inflow to Pyramid Lake.  The amount of water going to Pyramid Lake, is a fraction of what is needed to maintain the iconic desert lake and we will likely see a steep decline in its lake level  through the fall.  Pyramid has already declined around 22 feet during the past 15 years of drought.

Pyramid Lake Surface Elevation during long-term drought

Pyramid Lake Surface Elevation demonstrating the effects of the ongoing long-term drought

Currently, flows into Pyramid lake are running at about 110 CFS as they have been since fall of 2014.  Most of the Truckee River’s flow during the winter and early spring went instead to Lahontan Reservoir to provide irrigation water to farms at the Newlands Project at Fallon on the Carson River.  The Carson River is currently supplying only 4 CFS (yes – that is a single digit) into Lahontan Reservoir even though the Carson River has about 200 CFS flowing into Carson Valley about 50 or so miles upstream.  Upstream water users on the Carson River consume nearly entire flow the river before it reaches Lahontan Reservoir.  Last summer and fall the Carson River was essentially dry at Lahontan Reservoir.

Despite taking the lion’s share of Truckee River flow since late fall 2014, the Newlands Project farmers still face more cuts in water for 2015 over 2014’s water delivery cuts.  With Lahontan Reservoir now at 1/5 of maximum storage, water in Lahontan could be exhausted well before the end of the irrigation season.  There will be far less water than is needed to meet demand; a substantial number of farmers will likely see no water or greatly reduced water.  The TCID (Truckee River Irrigation District) which runs the Newlands Project warned the remaining farmers in Fernley that they may see no water due to the rapidly dropping Truckee River flows.

Lahontan Valley wetlands – Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge and Carson Lake wetlands area – are supplied by drainage from the farms and direct supply from the Newlands Project will also get little or no water.  The wetlands that historically covered nearly 100,000 acres are a small fraction today and even those reduced areas are threatened this year with the real prospect that no water will be available.

Carson Lake wetlands in Lahontan Valley mostly desiccated in April 2015.

Carson Lake wetlands in Lahontan Valley mostly desiccated in April 2015.

 

The Truckee River flows from last year were largely supplied by snow that fell in previous years – including the winter of 2011.  The snow of yesteryear is gone; will we pursue the same strategy of hoping for another wet year to “save us”? Will we continue to rely on a 10% reduction when we have zero snow pack in April? Is that really going to be effective in the face of extended drought? Perhaps it’s time to have a new conversation that talks about longer dry scenarios than we’ve ever imagined before.  It is a conversation that appears to be long overdue.


 

Truckee River Storage April 17, 2015 Storage (Acre-feet) Capacity (Acre-feet) % of Capacity
Stampede Reservoir 44,073 226,500 19.5%
Prosser Reservoir 5,598 29,840 18.8%
Boca Reservoir 8,148 40,870 19.9%
Donner Lake 6,040 9,500 63.6%
Carson River Storage      
Lahontan Reservoir 61,310 295,542 20.7%

 

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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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