With fires burning from California to Washington state, westerners are looking for storms bringing rain and snow to offer relief and an end to seemingly endless days of smoky skies. However, the NOAA Seasonal Drought Outlook isn’t offering much hope for most of the far west including Nevada.
“Although some drought improvement is expected across parts of the Southwest due to increased chances of enhanced September monsoon rainfall and then later from possible enhancement of the autumn subtropical Pacific jet from the strong El Niño, long-term hydrological drought is likely to continue in the Far West. Since SON is a climatologically dry for most of the lower 48 States (although November is wet in the Pacific Northwest), persistence is likely for most of California, except some possible improvement in the southeastern desert.” – NOAA: US Seasonal Drought Outlook (emphasis added)
Pyramid Lake in the 19th Century (L) and Pyramid Lake in the 20th Century (R)
The Truckee River Yacht Club has been around since 1988 and was one of the early players in reshaping the Truckee River Flood Project through public participation. Today we are concerned about the health – even the survivability – of the Truckee River itself. While the Truckee River Yacht Club has no yachts, we have worked on Truckee River protection and in-stream-flows and water quality for more than 2 decades.
We have 3 key questions for the panel today.
Is this a drought that will mimic the droughts of the 19th and 20th centuries? Or is the current dry spell something more?
How will we address the protection of rivers and lakes and wetlands and the fish and wildlife that depend on them? How will the public be educated to conserve the limited water resources of Nevada ?
Who are the leaders to tell Nevadans that the natural water resources of Nevada are tapped out?
We ask that the panel recognize that there are absolute limits on extraction of more water resources from already overstressed rivers and wetlands and groundwater. We also know that today the Truckee River isn’t supplying water except to those who have private storage rights like the TMWA (Truckee Meadows Water Authority, the water agency for Reno-Sparks). We know the “water rights” to use the river and actual “water” are two entirely different things. We also know that groundwater pumping borrows water from hoped for future rains. And we know that the Truckee River and its tributary streams could shrink under increased groundwater pumping.
Of course, the problem isn’t confined to just the Truckee River. The Humboldt River is dry before it reaches Rye Patch Reservoir. The Carson River is a mere trickle at Fort Churchill State Park. The Walker River doesn’t reach Walker Lake – even in average years. Washoe Lake dried up before summer even began.
Washoe Lake nearly dry in March 2015. Washoe Lake is in the Truckee River watershed.
The Truckee River was dry or nearly so at the Sparks measuring gauge for 4 days last week and for almost two days a week before that. Despite significant upstream storage capacity on the Truckee River watershed, those reservoirs are mostly depleted. Lake Tahoe stands below its rim – a condition that has now persisted for more than a year resulting in no flow into the Truckee River.
Pyramid Lake has fallen more than 25 feet in the last 15 years of mostly drought conditions. The drop is the result of a deficit of millions of acre-feet of water. Continued losses of water for the Lake threaten the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the endangered species found there and in the Truckee River.
Pyramid Lake offers ample proof of an extended drought with steeply declining lake levels since 2000.
Our view of the drought as an inconvenience – almost a distraction – to economic pursuits leads us deeper into our current water problem. Our failure to recognize a drying trend which began firmly at the turn of this current century is part of the problem, too. Another is our denial of climate change – very likely one of the reasons for warming and drying of the western US.
Our rivers, lakes, and wetlands and our uses of water cannot be sustained if the rainfall/snowfall of the past 15 years repeats into the future. Over the next 15 or 50 years, we will have to choose what to keep and what to change. Even in good times, Reno is a desert with only an annual average of 7 inches of precipitation.
We recommend engaging all Nevadans in a discussion of where we go from here. Looking to past solutions will not solve the water crisis we face. We need national and state experts from climatology, hydrology, and natural resources to provide the facts of our current situation and what to expect, most likely, going forward. We need to engage in research to understand how to keep our rivers and lakes intact and functioning, what water uses we can continue, what water uses we need to change, and how to get the public buy-in to carry out necessary solutions.
[Note – The Governor’s Drought Forum met today at the Nevada Department of Agriculture in Sparks, NV – TRYC wasn’t invited to testify, but we did submit the above comments to the members of the Forum.]
In a first for this century, the Truckee River went dry in Sparks on July 31. It remained at zero flow for around 36 hours, before going up again. What happened? Here you can see a dip in the Reno gauge to just 7 CFS for at least 24 hours between noon on July 30 to noon on July 31. Apparently, the entire flow of the river was then removed at the TMWA Glendale water takeout resulting in no water downstream as measured at the Sparks gauge. (Note: the red *on the graph means that an actual person measured the flow at that site and time.) Truckee River flow recovered at the Reno gauge to 40 CFS by early morning August 1 (followed by a rapid drop to 15 CFS) and today the river at the Reno gauge is nearly 60 CFS. However the Sparks gauge remains just a little better than half of that flow as of 5 PM today. Having the river go dry for even a short time is no milestone that anyone would celebrate. I’m glad that flow has returned to help keep the fish and wildlife along the river surviving (if barely) this summer and into fall. The rains helped upper elevation vegetation and trees, but have done very little to put water in the river.