The recent rain in the northern Sierra and western Nevada was certainly welcome.
I just saw a Facebook post declaring that “11 billion gallons of water added to Lake Tahoe …”. Yes, Tahoe did rise about 3″, so its elevation today is about 6,222.75′ but still 3″ below its rim. So by the Facebook post’s reckoning, there remains an 11 billion gallon deficit.
Lake Tahoe Surface Elevation October 19, 2016
To be sure, the water year is just 3 weeks old and the 3 day rainstorm was a good start to the fall and winter season. Will we get a double or triple precipitation and snowpack year? We would need that and a lot more to make up for the 16 year drought the entire southwest has experienced.
While we can hope for a record-setting snowpack this winter, hope is not going to solve our continuing water crisis. We need to recognize the very real possibility that the average annual precipitation of the 20th century is less – perhaps far less – in the 21st century. The first sixteen years of this century have produced snowpack runoff resulting in only about 70% of the 20th century’s average river flows in the Truckee River. Expecting an end to the lower flows of the Truckee River is sticking our heads in the sand.
This Saturday, October 15 the rain intensified with the new storm. While the temperatures seem unseasonably warm, rain is always welcome in the desert. At 9:30 pm it is still raining and the temperature where I live in Reno is 50º F; not close to snowing, that’s for sure.
Rain, however, does result in rapid runoff from commercial and residential properties and parking lots and roads. Oil mobilized by rain in parking areas and roads runs off to adjacent streets, into the storm drains, and then into the Truckee River. Containing this toxic runoff requires a good storm drain plan that works to reduce and clean the runoff before it reaches the Truckee River. The community should focus more resources on cleaning pollution associated with rapid storm runoff.
A rain in Reno results in oil being mobilized and moving from parking lots to storm drains and into the Truckee River.
One-two-three – each of the local governments has now adopted the One Truckee River Plan when the Reno City Council unanimously voted for it on September 28. The Washoe County Commission and Sparks City Council approved the plan earlier this month. A year-long process established the plan with involvement of many citizens and groups and agencies from the community. The approved plan addresses numerous issues of the Truckee River (and tributaries) through the urban area of the Truckee Meadows.
Community members at the first “One Truckee River Plan” meeting in fall 2015.
The One Truckee River Plan phase one lays out goals for implementation as funding becomes available and a time-frame to accomplish them.
“Goal One: Ensure and protect water quality and ecosystem health in the Truckee River” has six specific objectives with more detailed sub-objectives dealing with storm water, watershed management, human impacts, trees and vegetation, wildlife habitat, and the proper functioning of the river and its floodplain lands to attenuate flooding.
“Goal Two: Create and sustain a safe, beautiful and accessible river connecting people and places” also has 6 specific objectives to address appropriate use and discourage illegal activities, promote planning and management between Cities and County, enhance public safety and access, ensure better transportation and restrooms, add public art and murals, provide housing for homeless and access to medical care as an alternative to living on the river.
“Goal Three: Create an aware and engaged community that protects and cares for the river” has five specific objectives to promote awareness and education of the river’s natural and cultural importance, increase student education and participation, add opportunities for activities for all, inspire culture of stewardship, and ensure easy access to information. The latter could include a Truckee River Visitors Center, a network of kiosks, encouraging collaboration to Native American cultural uses of the river, and opportunities to acquire land or protect natural or cultural resources.
“Goal Four: Create an aware and engaged community that protects and cares for the river” has four specific objectives to create a sustainable organizational model to make implementation of the plan successful, develop partnerships and raise awareness of the plan, bring in funding to support the plan, and improve our understanding of the condition of the Truckee River.
The One Truckee River Plan – OTR Plan – is probably the most comprehensive look, yet, at the needs of the Truckee River and how to make the river a better place to visit while improving water quality, safety, accessibility, and helping residents and visitors to understand what makes a river “healthy”.
One of the key features to the plan is community education and involvement and that is always a positive to help make changes in the river corridor where they are very much-needed today. The next phase of the plan will address downstream of the Truckee Meadows where rapid development in Washoe County and Storey County continue to threaten the river and its vegetative corridor. Phase two of the OTR Plan may well be more controversial since industrial interests have dominated recently with construction of huge new buildings, roads, and bridges.
For now, we can celebrate a new approach to benefit our area’s most important natural resource – the Truckee River.
On the same day that the RGJ published the lead story about Governor Sandoval’s executive order creating the “Nevada Drought Forum”, the Governor also featured prominently in, “A top water user, Sandoval taking steps to cut back” as one of the top 150 household water users in the Truckee Meadows topping out at over 1,000,000 gallons in one year. The Governor immediately said that he was moving to reduce water use in his Reno residence. A local landscape company employee took some of the blame for the excessive use saying, “It was watering way more than it should have.” The Governor’s Reno residence includes an outdoor swimming pool and large areas of landscaping according to the RGJ.
Water runs off over-irrigated lawn in Reno
The Governor isn’t alone in using more water than necessary (a million gallons of water would produce 6 cuttings of alfalfa on an acre of land). Although I doubt that any of my neighbors are in the million gallon water user group that the Governor was, some are using plenty more than they need to. I say that because a several properties in my northwest neighborhood regularly allow water to flow down the street and into the gutter. That isn’t water they need – obviously.
Cutting back on water use means first that we recognize when we are wasting water. TMWA does have some suggestions on how to cut back, but do we need remedial training so that we can understand what excessive water use and waste actually looks like? I think that for many water use is just not on their radar screen – too many other priorities.
Truckee River depleted of its flow at the last water intake for the TMWA
Most of us think that if water is coming out of the tap or spraying out of the sprinkler, no problem, right? It can be difficult to associate the water we use in our houses and on our yards with the river – the Truckee River – whence it came. But every gallon you use in the Truckee Meadows (and many who live in the north valleys, too) comes from the Truckee River.
Galena Creek at Washoe County Galena Creek Park, Spring 2014
What about groundwater wells, you say? Ditto. Our groundwater wells in the Truckee Meadows are primarily filled from the river or its tributaries. Water flows from the western mountains through natural creeks and streams and ditches carry water around the entire valley from the Truckee River providing a way for streams to recharge the groundwater. In the Truckee Meadows itself, our annual precipitation at the airport averages only 7″ a year while evaporation is about 40″. With so little rainfall in the valley, it is the river and its tributaries that mostly fill our groundwater wells. Prior to explosive population growth and the ill-advised 1960’s era flood project that destroyed the Vista Marsh on the Truckee, the water table was very high. Flood irrigation of meadows and pastures through out the “Truckee Meadows” helped to keep it that way. It is safe to say that we are completely dependent on the Truckee River for our water here.
The RGJ article on the largest water users says, “the average household uses 124,000 gallons per year”. The 2010 census says that the average Washoe County household has about 3.2 persons making the daily water use about 106 gallons per person. Other cities in the west and southwest use significantly less water with better outdoor landscape ordinances, with Tucson, AZ averaging about 70 gallons per person per day. If Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks adopted landscape ordinances and incentives to encourage water conservation we could reduce our use by more than 33% in wet and drought years. So instead of using 20 billion* gallons of water per year, households could reduce that to 13.4 billion gallons saving almost 7 billion gallons per year.
*I made this calculation: According an estimate of the 2013 census figures for Washoe County there were 163,198 households. So, using the average water use statistic quoted in the RGJ article (which most likely came from TMWA) that would be 124,000 gallons/household X 163,198 households = 20,236,552,000 gallons of water. Let’s say 20 billion gallons of water (billion with a “b”) or 61,400 acre-feet. (The number doesn’t include commercial or industrial water users.)
What can we do to save that water? The list is long, but key among them is to reduce the amount of turf in your yard beginning with the front lawn. Businesses and housing developments line streets and common areas with strips of turf that few use, but are big water users (and wasters because it is difficult to water narrow strips of turf).
Strip lawns are big water users with runoff from the narrow strips common.
Could that be a accomplished to save water in cities and towns throughout Nevada? We will have to wait to see what the Governor’s Drought Forum comes up with on a state-wide basis by November (Click here to see the Executive order). The Forum is top heavy in bureaucrats and includes the huge water agency from Las Vegas, the Southern Nevada Water Authority. On the positive side, it also includes scientists from UNR and DRI. Who else? That remains to be seen since the Governor is yet to announce any citizens interested in conserving water resources statewide.
The Governor’s Drought Forum is expected to produce a list of recommendations and a “Drought Summit” with stakeholders in September of this year. I’m sure that cutbacks in domestic use will be proposed. How will the Drought Forum address the severe drought in the Truckee River? Statewide? We all need to be concerned if the forum proposes to create more “storage” in the form of additional reservoirs on already stressed rivers and streams in the region. Storage can be effective when there is occasional drought, but more reservoirs will likely be ineffective in long-term drought. In the western climate existing reservoirs are already taking a big chunk out of available water through evaporation. Mountain reservoirs in our region evaporate at least 3 acre-feet of water per acre of exposed surface.
A better choice for “saving” water is to recognize first that we have allocated too much. This becomes especially apparent during long-term droughts. “Water rights” that Truckee Meadows industrial and commercial, residential, and agricultural users technically have don’t actually exist this year. Agricultural users will probably get less than 1/5th of their “water rights”. TMWA users are being asked to cut back “at least 10%”, but unstated is that TMWA isn’t actually using all of its “water rights” and that much of those “water rights” couldn’t be delivered because there is physically no water available. Emphasizing the point that water here is over allocated is that most irrigation ditches will likely be dry by June. Last year they were dry by August. Hopefully, this isn’t a trend.
Truckee River in downtown Reno
Water here is always in short supply. Western Nevada is a desert that happens to have a miraculous river delivered to us from California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to our west. We are indeed fortunate to have this river that sustains us. Will we be up to the task to keep it flowing?
The Truckee Meadows Water Authority seeks a 10% reduction in water use from all its water customers sighting exceptional drought conditions and sooner reliance on its private drought reservoir storage and local wells. As reported on Fox Channel 11 the drought is “worse then (sic) expected”, according to an unnamed TMWA spokesman, “but, the good news is there will be enough water to get through this year.”
Demands on the Truckee River exceed the rivers ability to keep up. The river is particularly stressed during droughts which could become more common.
So defines our water supply strategy, “pray for snow”.
While the ten percent reduction is called for across the board of all TMWA customers, it isn’t clear how TMWA will report or monitor how customers respond. Further, the call for voluntary reduction fails to recognize that some are very large consumers of water – especially for outdoor watering – while many customers use significantly less water. The call for a 10% water use reduction by all customers in August, September and October of 2014 actually resulted in a 7.5% reduction or about 1,100 acre-feet according to TMWA. It remains to be seen whether people will respond for an entire spring, summer and fall season with reduced water use. A couple of days of thunderstorms in August 2014 bringing significant rain to some areas in and around the Truckee Meadows could have helped TMWA achieve the reduction.
TMWA’s call for a cutback of 10% in water use doesn’t address the waste of water that is common throughout the valley. Automatic sprinklers are notorious for wasting water in my neighborhood with obviously broken pipes, poor installations, and way too long cycle times that lead to serious overland flow into the street. Reports of these problems to TMWA has yet to yield any fixes since early last summer. Will TMWA begin to address water waste this year?
As we move into uncharted territory this summer and fall with a 7% of normal snowpack at Lake Tahoe, the public discussion of growth and water use seem to be far away.
An RGJ editorial “A low-snow future? We need to Talk: Our View“, raises questions about our current drought and its implications for our water future: “This could be just another wild swing in the Sierra Nevada’s historically fluctuating weather. Or it could be a sign of things to come?” Indeed, I’ve posed a similar question in one of my blogs:. The RGJ points out several facts which point in a very troubling direction for our region’s water supply:
120 years of records show the average statewide temperature has risen 3.5º F
every year since 1999 had above average temperatures
ski areas are closing earlier than ever – even large ski areas like Sugar Bowl on the western slope where huge snow totals were common
snow levels have risen 500 feet in elevation in the last 30 years
Lake Tahoe will likely not rise above its rim in 2015 sending no water into the Truckee River
the average daily minimum temperature in Tahoe City increased 4.2º F in 100 years
What the RGJ failed to mention is also significant. For example, to most of us who pay attention, the drought has been with us for 15 years with 2 wetter years interspersed. Or put another way, western Nevada has had 13% above average or wet years and 87% below average or dry years in the last decade and a half.
Could a shifting climate, warmer winters and summers, and prolonged dry periods change both the way we live as well as dry-up our rivers and lakes? It is going to take serious changes to our water use if the last 15 years are the new “normal”.
The news from the last month gives us a taste (an unpleasant one at that!) of what may become our water future.
Washoe Lake nearly dry in March 2015. Washoe Lake is in the Truckee River watershed.