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.
Hope for a “jubilant” January, a “fabulous” February, and a “miracle” March fell flat this year. The western US, including much of California and Nevada, faces another drought year. The Drought Monitor map shows the Sierra Nevada in “severe drought” along with all of western Nevada. Worse designations of “extreme” and “exceptional” drought categories are found in portions of 8 of the 9 western states.
Truckee River: low flows ahead for spring and summer
After the summer of 2021’s extreme fires and, in much of the west, unprecedented heat, December’s storms seemed to herald an above average water year in the offing for the Sierra. But a record breaking, dry January and February ended the hope that the 200% snow pack would persist. The ides of March has come and gone. Yet, the Sierra snowpack that supports the Truckee River is just 76 and 68 percent of average in the Truckee River and Tahoe watershed today. Lake Tahoe is just 12″ above its natural rim and the very real prospect of a continuing dry spring mean lower flows into the Truckee River below Tahoe City. The traditional April 1 peak snowpack measurement becomes less relevant as climate change warms temperatures winter and summer. The lack of storms in what should be the Sierra “wet season” stretches our multi-decadal drought for yet a further spring and summer.
The Truckee River Trail through Reno attracts residents and visitors alike. The river environment can be a source of peace and rejuvenation. It is more than just a water supply for the cities; it is a true recreational resource providing a scenic trail throughout urban Reno and Sparks all along the clear, flowing waters of the Truckee River. The community has invested to make this trail a treasure for all.
Trouble in river city
The Truckee River Trail is also the default location for many of the area’s homeless and graffiti taggers. Many of us who advocated for creating and expanding the recreational trail along the river to connect the urban environment to the natural environment of the Truckee River never foresaw the extent to which the trail would become a literal semi-permanent campground with ever increasing graffiti tagging. People I’ve spoken to tell me they avoid the Truckee River trail downriver of Idlewild Park due to the urban troubles intruding into and taking over the natural environment with trash and camps and tagging. The encampments, when “cleared out” quickly return in the same or new locations. Some trash often remains scattered across the banks of the river – bottles, wrappers, bags, blankets, baskets, etc. – regardless whether the site is occupied by the campers or not.
I’m revisiting the issue of encampments, trash and graffiti again in the hope that we can change our approach to keeping the river clean and stop pollution from the encampments. Right today there is not much reduction in the encampments, trash and graffiti that I observed and wrote about 3 years ago. Below are scenes along the Truckee River from downtown Reno to Greg Street taken in late September of last year. [I’ve digitally edited the graffiti so that it is not identifiable; this reduces the “in your face” aspect of the tags, but prevents advertising it.]
Truckee River Trail needs help
As the City Council’s and County Commissioner’s try to deal with the issue of homelessness, the Truckee River Trail impacts continue to mount. The river environment becomes an unfortunate camping ground and restroom for hundreds of people seeking temporary or permanent shelter along it. The issues that surround homelessness likely leads to much of the trash found along the river banks. The lack of regular pickup of trash and cleaning up discarded items of clothing, food containers, makeshift shelters also encourages graffiti taggers to add to the atmosphere of neglect and abandonment. An Insufficient number and desperately inadequate restroom facilities throughout the urban trail portion contribute to the pollution and inhumane conditions.
Can our Council’s and Commissioner’s focus their attention to the daily negative impacts to the Truckee River – throughout its urban reach – by funding new staff for clean up efforts? How about if the community funded the installation of more restrooms? And clean and refresh those restrooms 3 or more times per day and keep them open at least from 6AM to 10PM everyday?
The Truckee River is the community’s lifeline for our water supply but so much more. It deserves more attention from our elected leaders to fund clean up crews on a daily basis – not just when a homeless “clear out” is in the works.
The timing between rainfall events stresses plants throughout the region. The decrease in moisture leads to more intense fires and dried up vegetation needed for wildlife and agriculture alike.
The research was led by University of Arizona climate scientist Fangyue Zhang. The reduction in drought busting rainfall across the southwest is consistent with climate models forecasting decreased moisture as the overall atmosphere warms due to human-caused greenhouse gas increases.
“Human activity is driving climate change.” said Colm Sweeney of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory this Wednesday according to an article in the USA Today which continued: “…the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere is now higher than it has been in at least 3.6 million years.”
Droughts appear to be lasting longer as the active winter pattern of Pacific storms shift north more frequently. This year in California and western Nevada, only one significant storm in January upped the percentage of the meager snowpack. Ultimately, the snowpack topped out around 68% for the Tahoe-Truckee River by April 1, but runoff will be less than 40% of the average due to the extremely dry soils throughout the Sierra and Nevada.
The National Weather Service forecast model shows the flow of the Truckee River at Floriston, CA peaking by April 27. The extremely dry soils in the Truckee River watershed at both Lake Tahoe and the Truckee Basin are contributing to the lower runoff as well as the below average snowpack this year and last year.
The actual peak in river flows could be earlier if the weather remains warmer than expected or be later if cooler and stormier weather comes in. The 10 day forecast doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of precipitation through the first part of April, however. The Carson and Walker Rivers are also expected to have peak flows early.
Currently, the snowpack is melting fast and earlier than would be indicated by historical data. With an early melting of the snow, rivers and streams will likely be well below their average flow into the first part of the summer. The Truckee River, due to upstream storage in reservoirs and Lake Tahoe, will have summer flows while the Carson and Walker Rivers will likely be dry in early summer in many locations.
It’s easy to miss Derby Dam on your drive east on I-80. Look to your right when the “Derby Dam” exit sign appears and you’ll see an earthen berm and concrete spillway and some of the dam’s control structures. The dam is off limits to the public.
But this diversion dam on the Truckee River brought with it a cascade of negative environmental and social effects by not only stopping all fish migration upstream to their spawning grounds but setting in motion a plunging water level at Pyramid Lake and diverting the flows of the Truckee River through a canal to another basin to create new farms in the desert. The Congressional act that created the diversion dam and canal ushered in a era of damming rivers across the west to the detriment of fish and wildlife and, too often, the Native Americans whose livelihoods depended on the rivers and lakes both on and surrounding their reservations. Today, there is the promise of a “fix” with the construction of a fish screen and fish passage at the dam to provide fish access to the Truckee River’s spawning areas from Pyramid Lake all the way to Lake Tahoe.
The Newlands Project: Promise of irrigation ignored Native Americans
The diversion dam was the first of five irrigation projects authorized after passage of legislation sponsored by Nevada Senator Francis Newlands and built by the newly minted Reclamation Service now renamed the Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau). Completed in 1905, the Newlands Project named after the legislation’s namesake, consisted primarily of Derby Dam connected to a 31 mile long diversion canal – the Truckee Canal.†
Together the structures set in motion the dessication of Winnemucca Lake east of Pyramid Lake, an 80 foot drop in water level of Pyramid, the extirpation of the native Lahontan cutthroat trout in Pyramid Lake in the 1940’s, and near extinction of the Cui-ui fish that the Pyramid Lake Paiute People relied on for food for thousands of years and symbolized their cultural identity. Cui-ui are endemic to Pyramid Lake and migrate up the Truckee River to reproduce. The Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT) became a threatened species and the Cui-ui endangered under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe together with others who wanted to see the restoration of the LCT to Pyramid brought another strain of LCT to Pyramid Lake from a population found on the Summit Lake Reservation in northern Nevada. The fish had to be raised in hatcheries on the Pyramid Lake Reservation because they didn’t have access to spawning areas in the Truckee River any longer.
† Lahontan Dam was built later and completed in 1917 and allowed more diversions from the Truckee River for storage.
More recently the original native strain of Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroat trout has been reintroduced into Pyramid Lake. The Cui-ui are successfully spawning using water releases from upstream reservoirs during its spring spawning season. Fish hatcheries operate at Numana and Sutcliffe on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation for the propagation of both species.
Truckee River Operating Agreement and Water Quality Agreement …
… between the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and upstream users have lead to better management of the Truckee River to the benefit of both fish species through improved river flows and water quality. However, Derby Dam and the Truckee Canal remain a blockage to restoring the trout which for millennia migrated the 120 miles from Pyramid Lake up the Truckee River to Lake Tahoe every year to spawn a new generation of fish. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe never gave up on restoring their fishery dependent on the flows of the Truckee River.
Now, the Bureau and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are nearing completion on a nearly $24 million fish-passage project at Derby Dam and the Truckee Canal to help the annual spawning migration of the Lahontan cutthroat trout.
Fish Passage Construction completion slated for Fall 2020
Slated to be completed this fall, constructed fish screens in a “bypass canal longer than a football field” will keep fish from becoming trapped in the canal. An AP article appearing in the Nevada Appealexplained, “The bypass canal will include an 80-foot-wide, 390-foot-long horizontal fish screen — actually a metal plate with slots that pushes water down through the water system while sending the fish and other debris through the side channel”. The article quotes Jody Holzworth, deputy regional director of the USFWS, saying “This day is 100 years in the making. The fish screen will allow this iconic species to travel beyond Derby Dam, from Pyramid lake to their spawning grounds, for the first time in more than a century.”
Dan Mosley, executive director of Pyramid Lake Fisheries for the PLPT, said the people of the tribe have a long history of fighting for the fish which “are really important in our stories and culture.”
Soon it should be possible for the Lahontan cutthroat trout to pass the diversion dam at Derby and have access to the Truckee River all the way to Lake Tahoe. We wish them a safe journey.