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Water allocations over done.
In Nevada, as in many other western states, those who first put water to beneficial use (growing a crop or providing drinking water to a town, for example) have a right to use that water over those who come later. Early on most water used in the state came from surface waters such as the Truckee or Humboldt Rivers or smaller streams which flowed from the state’s numerous mountain ranges or from local or large regional springs. Most of the surface waters in Nevada were already claimed before the 1930s. The beneficial uses claimed became water rights. Water rights can be bought and sold.
Native Americans were already here.
Ignored in the claiming of water rights beginning in the late 1850s was the cyclic nature of water availability in the dry Great Basin and Mojave Deserts. Water that is present in a sagebrush covered valley one year may be absent the next one or longer. And while the newcomers claimed the water for themselves, none appeared to notice that the Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe Peoples already occupied the land and were prior users of the rivers and springs that nourished many wetlands, lakes, and meadows with the wildlife and plants the People depended on for survival. The Indigenous population found that the water that supported their way-of-life for thousands of years was used somewhere else by someone else. The water supplied by the natural world that had sustained them disappeared.
Newcomers claim the water.
Over the decades more and more water claims depleted rivers, lakes, springs, and wetlands throughout the state. Lakes such as Pyramid fed by the Truckee River and Walker fed by its namesake shrank as their river’s flows diminished – or disappeared altogether. And large wetlands on the Humboldt and Carson Rivers shrank as water went to farms and industry.
Taking water flowing in a river, stream, or spring has an immediate effect. For example, consider a small stream that has a flow of 10 cubic-feet per second (CFS)† with two users who each claim 5 CFS. If water user number 1 diverts half of the flow of the stream to an irrigation ditch, then the flow downstream of the diversion is immediately reduced to 5 CFS. The remaining water in the stream continues downstream to water user number 2. When water user number 2 diverts his share, then downstream of the diversion, the stream is dry. In a different year or later in the season, when the stream’s flow is 5 CFS, then water user number 1 diverts all flow and nothing remains for water user number 2. When the stream has 1 CFS, water user number 1 still diverts all the flow, but is unable to get her full water right and water user number 2 again has no water to divert.†† From the environmental perspective, the stream no longer has flow to support riparian trees or meadows below the diversions and eventually, they disappear. Essentially, every year becomes a drought year downstream of the diversion.
† 1.0 cubic-foot per second is approximately 7.481gallons per second. Early miners were among the first to appropriate water in Nevada using “miner’s inch“. Today, Nevada has a legal definition that a “miner’s inch” is equal to 0.025 cubic-feet per second.
†† Certain surface water allocations depend on “return flow” when not all the water is consumed irrigating a crop or water is returned to a stream from a sewage treatment facility. “Return flow” can then be diverted by another appropriator.
Water already claimed in rivers and springs.
The appropriation of surface water had negative effects on the rivers and streams and springs, because the original benefits of flow through the river’s environment were reduced. But the cyclic nature of water in the desert continued and when rivers and springs couldn’t keep up with the water users demand and reservoirs shrank, a new group of folks wanted water that they could depend on whether it rained or not. Groundwater pumping was a promise of unlimited supply – that unseen resource just beneath your feet. The promise was a false one and today we face a reckoning of over spending our water bank account on both fronts.
The “new” water: Groundwater.
Pumping significant amounts of groundwater from aquifers was really not possible during the time when most of the state’s surface water was allocated between the various industrial and agricultural users. Beginning in the mid-20th century, however, groundwater extraction with powerful pumps became more and more common. The Nevada State Engineer (NSE) allowed groundwater wells to be drilled for agriculture or other uses even in basins with fully appropriated rivers and streams and springs such as the Humboldt River and the Walker River and around Moapa’s springs. The NSE now admits, in many cases, the overallocation was known at the time, but the NSE didn’t expect that the people getting the permits would be economically successful (an erroneous assumption as it turned out!) or that they didn’t consider the negative effect groundwater pumping would have on rivers and springs. The damage to rivers and springs due to over pumping, however, is a matter of hydrology. The excuses for why it was allowed to continue for decades doesn’t change the negative outcome for river and spring flows and the consequences for the people dependent on them and to the fish and wildlife that can’t survive without them.
In all groundwater pumping, groundwater levels decline by the very action of extracting water and bringing it to the surface. Essentially, a cone-shaped hole develops around the well. If pumping ceases soon after the pumping begins, the cone-shaped hole or depression slowly fills in and after a long enough period of time, it may get close to the original groundwater level, but that generally takes far longer to happen than the length of time the groundwater pumping occurred.
Over appropriating the groundwater.
Over the decades the Nevada State Engineer (NSE) has permitted groundwater users to over-appropriate as many as half of Nevada’s hydrographic basins in the state with the least amount of water. Theoretically, pumping is supposed to be “balanced” by drying out the surface and eliminating plants and water “discharges” (like springs) that use groundwater through evapotranspiration. (Eliminating all evapotranspiration to achieve this “balance” with groundwater pumping can result in a barren landscape increasing dust as well as damaging seeps, springs, and meadows dependent on groundwater.)
Pumping groundwater appears, at first, to be benign. When groundwater pumping begins, it removes water that may be a source of supply to rivers or springs, but the effect of pumping takes time to deplete the flow of a river or spring (see illustration above). The further away the river or spring is from the pumping, the longer it takes. Effects of the State’s overallocation of groundwater and the near complete allocation of surface water are now being felt with continually declining groundwater levels in as many as 50% of Nevada’s basins, but it is also affecting iconic rivers like the Humboldt – the largest river completely contained within the state’s borders. However, no river or stream is immune to the damage caused from pumping of groundwater (or the over allocation of surface water, for that matter). The extent of the pumping, leading to over pumping and continually dropping groundwater levels, harms the environment and leads to conflicts between water rights holders and to discord between and among rural and urban Nevadans.
Nevada water law is clear.
Before approving any water applications, Nevada water law (Title 48, NV Revised Statutes) requires the NSE to find that water is available at the source and it will not conflict with existing water rights. This requirement applies to both the allocation of surface water or groundwater. Nevertheless, the NSE has, in fact, allocated water far beyond the available supply. In the graphic above, those areas shown in “red” are 300% or greater over the available supply and the “yellow” and “green” areas are more than 200% or more than 110% over the available supply, respectively. It is easy to see why conflicts are escalating between and among users and why the environment in many areas suffers from a lack of water.
Nevada State Engineer now wants changes to the law.
The NSE now wants the legislature to change the law to allow the NSE to “deal with” the conflicts his water office has created over many decades (and in contradiction to the law’s provisions.) These changes are embodied in two pieces of legislation the NSE has brought to the 2019 Nevada Legislature – AB30 and AB51. Check out our next blog to see how these could affect our critically important rivers and streams and springs throughout Nevada.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Note: This editorial appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal on October 10, 2018.