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.
February snow and rain in California and Nevada quickly took a slightly below average winter season at the beginning of the year to well above average by the beginning of March. February snow in the Sierra set a record with as much as 400 inches of snow falling in and around the Lake Tahoe basin. As of this writing on March 1† the Truckee River watershed stood at 141% of average precipitation and Lake Tahoe at 136% of average. Lake Tahoe rose over a foot during February, much of it from precipitation directly on its surface. If the Sierra and western Nevada continue to receive average snow and rainfall during March, there will be continued above average flows in rivers and streams in California and Nevada.
Other Nevada river basins also are currently above average††: Carson River basin, 120%; Walker River basin, 136%; Humboldt River basin, 115-117%. Likewise, the runoff forecast for the Colorado River has improved with additional precipitation in the Rocky Mountains during February.
Lake Tahoe rise Jan-Feb’19
The remainder of the winter season will determine just how significant the runoff will be for the 2018-19 water year. A continuation of the wet weather will result in additional runoff to positively benefit the rivers and streams and terminal lakes of Nevada that were negatively affected by the dry winters from 2012 through 2016 and the overall dry conditions that prevailed in the western US since the beginning of the century.
† The water year runs from October 1 to September 30.
†† Percent of average is a floating value based on the historic average for a given date.
Peavine Mtn from Rancho San Rafael in Reno mid-February ’19
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
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)
The Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce has endorsed WC-1, a measure adding a tax on all Washoe County properties to address flooding along the Truckee River. Taxes will be higher on those properties within the flood zone, but every property owner will pay something.
For 50 years I have voted for ballot measures addressing needs in education, parks, flooding, safety, the train trench, etc. All these measures not only acknowledged growth but needs for maintenance and improvements. WC-1, unfortunately, has a number of shortcomings, requiring a second look at our flood needs and recreational opportunities.
WC-1 applies only to the Truckee River and not to the tributaries which feed it. Building in the flood plain near tributaries such as Steamboat Creek, which pours into the Truckee River, apparently relies on persuasion rather than regulation. As a result, developers can build on tributary flood plains and pass the problem to the Truckee River, resulting in more flooding, thereby lengthening the time and cost of the tax beyond current estimates. As for flooding elsewhere in the county — for instance, Swan Lake — there are no funds at all. With a warming climate we may experience more tributary flooding as we receive more rain than snow.
Flood walls are now a major feature of the Flood Project after many elements from the Citizens Coalition for a living river were rejected by the Flood Project.
The Truckee River may be the most valuable recreation location in the Truckee Meadows. Given the expected growth of Washoe County and tendency to grow “up” in multifamily housing, there will be more use of and demand upon existing parks and trails. Our open space has an economic development factor in promoting family-friendly living and hosting events. The Truckee River corridor open space needs to be expanded. However, if WC-1 passes, we taxpayers will be encouraging more development along the Truckee River; opportunities for acquiring land may be limited.
Finally, to what extent does passage of this imperfect tax forestall another more critical tax to address flood, recreation or other needs?
The hardworking advisory committee which recommended WC-1 is not at fault. The legislation under which they worked AB 375 was narrow in scope, leaving me, at least, with a “no” vote.
Tina Nappe is a local conservationist.
American Dipper at Idlewild Park
Note: This editorial appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal on October 10, 2018.
Many of us know the Truckee River’s largest source is Lake Tahoe and that the river flows to Pyramid Lake – Nevada’s largest natural lake. However, most who live and work in and around the Truckee Meadows have little idea how much water is taken out of the river before the water can make its way to Pyramid Lake. As we approach the end of the summer, river flow through Reno is diminishing, and upstream reservoirs hold water in large amounts following the heavy rain and snow from the winter of 2016-17 and the almost average year in 2017-18. The Reno-Sparks area – the Truckee Meadows and surrounding valleys – divert and use Truckee River water, of course. What isn’t obvious is where that water for residential and commercial and agricultural users actually goes. Is some of it returned to the river? How much water remains in the river after the water is diverted? Who treats the waste water and what happens to it? Let’s start with a big-picture understanding of who takes water out of the Truckee River in the Reno-Sparks area, how it is used, and how some of it is treated.
TMWA Municipal and Industrial Use
One of the larger diversions on the Truckee River is by the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA) which supplies municipal and industrial (M&I) water to nearly all of the Truckee Meadows. TMWA directly diverts water from the Truckee River at Chalk Bluff and at Glendale. Truckee River water also heads to Stead and Lemon Valley. Not all the water used for TMWA customers comes from the river directly, however. While most of the water TMWA distributes to its customers comes from the Truckee River, TMWA pumps water from wells or tributaries in the river’s watershed (like wells in Washoe Valley or the Callahan Ranch or tributaries like White’s Creek), or from wells located within the Truckee Meadows.
TMWA Chalk Bluff Truckee River Diversion and Treatment Facility
The Stead and Lemon Valley areas use local groundwater and imported groundwater pumped from Fish Springs Ranch wells 40 miles north along the Nevada/California border. This groundwater is “blended” with Truckee River water that was pumped uphill 500 ft in elevation to the Stead area.
A significant portion of the M&I water TMWA diverts from the Truckee River (and pumps from wells within the Truckee Meadows) is used for irrigating residential lawns and gardens, golf courses, and other landscapes throughout the region. With global warming (and some small amount of urban induced heating as well), the Truckee Meadows and the west in general is hotter than in the past requiring a longer irrigation season and more water to keep plants healthy during long hot spells and warmer days. The Truckee Meadows set a record already this summer with 19 days of 100º F or higher – and summer heat isn’t over yet.
Water that goes to outdoor irrigation is mostly consumed. That is, it is lost through evapotranspiration by grasses, plants, and trees and does not return to the river. A certain amount of water used outdoors runs off into the streets and gutters due to improper irrigation system maintenance or design or from car washing and other water applied to hard surfaces. This runoff water heads down the gutters and can pick up considerable contamination before returning to the River through the storm drain system.
Gardens like this one use far less water and require less maintenace than a lawn
As a result of the warming climate, landscapes require a longer irrigation season in the Truckee Meadows. The growing season now – defined as the number of days with non-freezing temperatures – has steadily increased since the 1950’s. Additionally, when daytime temperatures stay above 90º for weeks, vegetation often requires more water to remain healthy. And, it isn’t unusual to see sprinklers running even during November or March because of warm temperatures and lack of adequate precipitation. Ultimately, conserving water in our garden landscapes is essential in order to protect flows of the Truckee River and reduce the cost of supplying the region with water.
Residential water running into gutter in August 2018
(The Truckee Meadows is mostly a high desert and receives only about 7″ of rainfall each year so most lawns, trees, and plants favored for landscapes wouldn’t survive without irrigation. Outdoor landscapes that use plants adapted to our dry climate save water and, when replacing lawns, can reduce yard maintenance as well.)
Agricultural Use also includes Parks and Public Spaces
There are diversions from the Truckee River into ditches built in the 19th and early 20th century by and for agricultural users in the Truckee Meadows (Steamboat, Coldron, Highland, Orr, Last Chance, Pioneer, Cochran, and Lake ditches.) The entire region was dominated by ranches then. After WWII change came to the ranch lands throughout the Truckee Meadows and, over the decades, urban and suburban development replaced the ranches. As most of the Truckee Meadows changed from ranches and farms to housing developments, the former agricultural water rights converted to M&I water rights now controlled by TMWA (previously by the Sierra Pacific Power Company). As the remaining agricultural land within the Truckee Meadows gradually disappears under housing, shopping malls, and roads, M&I usage controlled by TMWA will increasingly dominate.
Some Washoe County and Reno and Sparks City Parks and Golf Courses receive water directly from the ditches that originally supplied water to the ranches. For example, Rancho San Rafael receives water from the Highland Ditch which is supplied by a diversion from the river many miles away in Verdi.
Rancho San Rafael Park receives water from the Highland Ditch (seen on left side of this google image)
Likewise, Virginia Lake Park receives water from the Cochran Ditch which is supplied by water diverted from the river in downtown Reno. Reno’s Paradise Park also receives water from area ditches, the Mountain View Cemetery receives water from the Highland Ditch, and the Orr Ditch supplies water for UNR’s Manzanita Lake. UNR’s Main Station Farm east of McCarran Blvd. receives water from the Pioneer ditch which diverts water from the river near the Grand Sierra Hotel-Casino. Water diverted from the Truckee River into ditches that isn’t consumed by the grasses, plants and trees flows through return canals, creeks, and sloughs and eventually returns to the river or enters the groundwater.
The Truckee Meadows still has a relatively high groundwater table especially in the eastern part of the valley. The high groundwater table reveals itself at the Sparks Marina Park.
Sparks Marina is filled by groundwater. Pumps shown in the lower center remove water to the river.
This former gravel pit is now a large lake because groundwater “flows” into it continually filling it to the level of the groundwater table. However, in order to keep the lake from rising too high due to the high groundwater level (and causing problems for the surrounding houses and businesses), pumps remove water from the man-made lake to the nearby Truckee River.
Treated Waste Water Returns to the Truckee River
Most of the water used indoors by Truckee Meadows residences and businesses for cooking, cleaning, and sanitation (think toilets and showers here) goes via sewer pipes to the Truckee Meadows Regional Water Reclamation Facility (TMWRF) located on the east side of the valley at Vista where Steamboat Creek enters the Truckee River. After treatment at the TMWRF most of the water is released to the Truckee River (about 95% according to a 2005 report on waste water facilities in Washoe County.)
Some of the reclaimed water from TMWRF is used for irrigation of Golf Courses, the University Farm, certain parks and recreation facilities and other places where use of reclaimed water is deemed acceptable.
Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility
However, TMWRF is not the only waste water reclamation facility in the Truckee Meadows or the wider Washoe County. Waste water at Stead does not return to the Truckee River, but is released from treatment plants there that ends up in Swan Lake where it, along with normal precipitation, usually evaporates. Water for Swan Lake Nature Area provides habitat for the wetland park that rises and falls with the seasons and has thousands of birds using it including the area’s namesake Tundra Swans in the fall and winter. (In 2017-18, as the residents around Swan Lake and White Lake found out, there was so much water from natural runoff as well as imported groundwater that flooding was wide spread in low-lying areas as the closed basin filled with water. )
South Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Plant in Huffaker Hills
Likewise, water treated at the South Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility (STMWRF) does not return to the Truckee River. The reclaimed water from this facility is stored in a reservoir and used for irrigation or evaporates from the reservoir. STMWRF treats waste water from residential areas south of Rattlesnake Mountain and up along the Mount Rose Highway. STMWRF’s reclaimed water is used for outdoor irrigation or evaporates from the reservoir used to store the treated water.
Only treated waste water from TMWRF is released to the Truckee River. Treated waste water from the other facilities, which is of lesser quality, is not be returned to the river or allowed to enter the groundwater.Treated waste water, therefore, can be either released to the Truckee River or used for irrigation of parks and other recreation facilities where the water is consumed by the grass, plants or trees through evapotranspiration. A completely separate piped distribution system is required to ship reclaimed water to sites for outdoor irrigation.
TMWRF treats water and has a capacity of nearly 40 million gallons per day (about 44,000 acre-feet per year maximum). The plant treats water to a fairly high standard and the facility also removes nitrogen and phosphorus in addition to contaminants. Nevertheless, the water released by TMWRF is higher in temperature and chemical pollutants than before it was used. Other treatment plants treat water to a lesser level.
Lake Tahoe may be the largest alpine Lake in North America but temperatures here are rising. Increasing temperatures the year-round are seen for both the air and the water according to a report by University of California, Davis “Tahoe: State of the Lake 2018“. The long-term average daily minimum temperature in the Tahoe Basin rose 4.4ºF over the past 100 years while the average daily maximum temperature rose 2.2ºF. The number of freezing days – that is, the number of days where the temperature remains below 32ºF – has decreased by 30 days in that time. And the annual average water temperature of the Lake – while a more complicated statistic – shows the Lake warming 1.1ºF since 1970, “… bringing it to the warmest value recorded…” – 43.3ºF. The July 2017 surface water temperature of the Lake was the warmest ever recorded at 68.4ºF.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains on the west shore of Lake Tahoe veiled by smoky skies from wildfires.
The report says that in 2017 “…the monthly air temperatures were higher than the 1910-2017 average…” in 11 out of 12 months. And rising temperatures have implications for the health of the forest as well as the clarity of the Lake’s fabled waters. If CO2 continues to rise, temperatures in the Tahoe Basin could be 7 to 9ºF higher which will increase the “climate water deficit” – with likely negative effects on the entire ecosystem of the forest and lake environment. The report says that such an occurrence is the “subject of ongoing research.”
Truckee Meadows warms up to HOT
For those of us who spent July in Reno, it is no surprise that it was the hottest month ever in Reno exceeding last year’s “hottest ever July” by 1.3ºF. As a Renoite of nearly 7 decades, it is shocking that this July saw average temperatures 6.9 degrees above the 1981-2010 average. The cool summer evenings of the Truckee Meadows are a distant memory with the July 31st tie of the highest low temperature for Reno of 77ºF . The month was 6.9 degrees above the 1981-2010 average.
NOAA Temperature for Reno July 31, 2018 (click)
So just how hot was July 2018 here in Reno?
We had the highest average temperatures of 81.8ºF – a staggering 6.9ºF above the 30 year running average. It set a record for the most days at or over 100ºF – 14. The high temperature for the 31 days of July 2018 never was below 90ºF – matching the hotness of July … wait for it … 2017!
We often hear about “normal” temperatures when the weatherwoman on TV or Radio talks about being above or below the normal temperature. It is actually defined as the 30 year average calculated every decade. The current “normal” comes from the period 1981 to 2010. In 2021, normal temperatures will be calculated during the period 1991-2020. So all these new hot temperatures will be part of the “average” and “normal”. In this way, the rising temperatures get smoothed out and don’t seem as out-of-bounds as they would if we used, say, a 50 year average or a 75 year average. Reno’s records date back 125 years, but worldwide, many temperature records are far longer.
… And the warming temperatures are caused by?
Climate change, or global warming, is the result of the the physics of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the upper atmosphere by burning carbon-based fuels – coal and oil and gas. The knowledge of this physics isn’t new; its been known by scientists since the 19th century who said then that it would warm up the earth. Presently, if you search on the internet for “climate change”, you’ll find far more nonsense about a “hoax” than you’ll find actual scientific information which is verified by scientists – who know a thing-or-two – and our own experiences with each passing year.
Just where does the Truckee River’s Water Go? Check back for an update on Truckee River water – diversions, dams, and development takes a bite!
Hunter Creek cascades into the Truckee River at Mayberry Bridge near Mayberry Park in Reno in June.