Category Archives: Drought

Changing Climate or Wet Year?

If the fish and wildlife dependent on the Truckee River and Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe could cheer, we’d certainly be hearing the shout-out because of this winter’s huge rain and snow events bringing near record river flows this spring. After such a long drought and long-term rain and snow deficit beginning in 2000, this year has been a celebrated event.

Is it just a wet year following a drought or are erratic swings in precipitation to be expected from Climate Change? Are having the driest year on record in 2014-15 and the wettest year on record in 2016-17 the pattern of a new “normal” for the western US?

Truckee River at Mayberry Park viewed from Steamboat Ditch Trail

This is a winter and spring of superlatives for Truckee River flows. Pyramid Lake has risen, so far, 9.1 feet since January 1, 2017 and on June 1 was at a water surface elevation 3,801.24 feet above sea-level. This is a tremendous benefit to the endangered cui-ui fish found only in Pyramid Lake as well as its huge Lahontan Cutthroat Trout that wow fishermen at 15 or even 20 pounds. In the last 20 years, the high water elevation measured at Pyramid Lake was 3,817.6 feet on August 17, 1999. Prior to the federal government’s 1905 Newlands irrigation project that diverted water to expand farmland in Lahontan Valley, Pyramid Lake was relatively stable at an elevation of about 3,875 feet.†

The Truckee River on June 8, 2017 flowed at 3,900 cubic-feet-per-second (CFS) or 5 times the long-term average flow on that date – higher flows only occurred once before in 1983 (which was a wet year preceeded by several wet years).

Lake Tahoe has gone from below its rim last October to rise more than 6 feet totalling 736,000 acre-feet of water with more still coming. On June 19, the water surface elevation of Lake Tahoe was just 4.8 inches below its legal maximum of 6,229.1 feet elevation. The result of the rainfall events and exceptional snowpack runoff has contributed to the large flows of the Truckee River from late winter into spring. Summer flows in the Truckee River will also be larger than seen in many years.

Another wet year could bring Pyramid Lake back to levels not seen since 1999 when Pyramid Lake’s water surface elevation was 16 feet higher than today. Flows in the Truckee River are typically higher in multiple wet years in a row when reservoirs are already full and water must be released from reservoirs like Lake Tahoe rather than stored. If the Sierra around Tahoe has a similar rain and snow-filled winter season for 2017-18, then all of the runoff would flow to Pyramid Lake resulting in a significant inflow increase to Pyramid and raising the water level of Pyramid Lake substantially more than we saw this year. But, if next winter is average or dry, then runoff to Pyramid will be substantially less and no bump in Pyramid’s water level will occur.

American White Pelicans hang out at the Truckee River delta at Pyramid Lake April 2017.

American White Pelicans hang out at the Truckee River delta at Pyramid Lake April 2017.

So, with wild swings in preciptation observed since 1997, what can we expect from the winter of 2017-18? How will climate change – read climate warming especially in the northern hemisphere – affect snowfall and rainfall that keeps the Truckee River flowing and water in our Lakes?

With President Trump’s withdrawal from the International Climate accord, it appears that, at least from the Federal Government, it is a reversal of positive action to protect the earth from the most disastrous effects of a warming world caused by burning fossil fuels. The new administration seems determined to rapidly increase use of fossil fuels and stop solar and wind and geothermal technologies from competing.

Click to see.

Each of us and individual states and businesses can, however, choose to reject returning to the coal-style economy of the last century which brings higher temperatures, increased evaporation and evapotranspiration, and is very likely part of the wild swings in weather world-wide, and especially concerning for the arid western US.

Meanwhile, NOAA reports that there is a 50-55% chance that there will be “neutral” conditions in the Pacific meaning no “el niño” or “la niña” is being forecast at this time. What does that mean for the upcoming winter weather? We’ll find out at the end of March 2018.

Expect the wild ride to continue.

Under natural conditions and prior to the 1905 Newlands irrigation project, Pyramid Lake and Winnemucca Lake both received water from the Truckee River. When Pyramid Lake reached an elevation of around 3,880 feet, water would flow through a channel north of Chalk Bluff to Winnemucca Lake. Because of the Newlands irrigation project, Pyramid Lake steadily dropped and no water could flow to Winnemucca Lake. Winnemucca Lake, once a National Wildlife Refuge, dried up in 1940. Pyramid Lake is presently about 80 feet lower in elevation than its historic level. The channel to Winnemucca Lake is still visible from highway 447 as you go around Chalk Bluff. The Pyramid Lake people in the 1920s recorded the precipitous fall of Pyramid Lake by recording elevations on the famous Pyramid. The dates inscribed on the Pyramid show how quickly it shrank as diversions began. The dates of 1924, 25, 26, 27, and 28 are visible even today each showing the successive decline in the Lake’s elevation.

Pyramid Lake dates inscribed on Pyramid

Anticipating winter snows for Truckee River flows

Despite the rains of October in the central Sierra, Tahoe today is still 3.6″ below its rim and no water flows to the Truckee River from the Lake.  Most of the Truckee River flow comes from tributaries downstream of Lake Tahoe’s outlet including the Little Truckee River, its largest tributary. It is, however, likely that Tahoe will rise above its rim in the coming weeks as winter weather approaches. Filling Lake Tahoe to its maximum elevation would raise the current level more than 6 feet and require at least a 200 percent water year or double the long-term average annual precipitation of snow and rain.

Lake Tahoe elevation week ending 12-05-2016

Lake Tahoe elevation week ending 12-05-2016

October was a wet month in Reno with two storms that each produced over an inch of rain. It was extremely welcome after a long and very dry summer and early autumn. The storms resulted in record October rainfall for some places in the central Sierra and Lake Tahoe. Temperatures remained warmer than “normal”, however, until late November when it finally cooled off. Mt Rose Ski area on the Mt Rose Highway is reporting 13″ of snow at the lodge of natural and artificial snow and 25″ at the 9,800 foot level as I write this. Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows Ski Resort in California reports a base of 28″ and anticipates up to 2 feet of snow from a series of storms predicted to arrive Wednesday a stay into Saturday. News of the wet October have made a hoped for wet winter in the central Sierra after last year’s dismal “El Niño” palpable. [Find an SFGATE report on the October rainfall/snowfall here.]

Nov 16-Feb 17-precipitation-outlook

Nov 16-Feb 17-precipitation-outlook

NOAA forecasts Northern California and Nevada will see a 50-50 chance of average precipitation under the “La Niña” conditions in the central Pacific Ocean. However, southern California and Nevada as well as most of the southwest and southeast US are forecast to see dry conditions during the “La Niña” winter. Some are saying that there is a good chance for more snow this year around Lake Tahoe northward to the Cascades.

US Drought Monitor Map 2016 11 29

US Drought Monitor Map 2016 11 29

The US Drought Monitor is still showing Reno in the Moderate to Severe drought category despite the recent rains, but soil moisture conditions have improved as you go north toward Oregon. California mostly remains in drought with a large portion of central and southern California in the most severe drought categories. Drought conditions in Nevada have moderated with western and southern Nevada remaining in the drought categories (click map for full size).

Truckee River flow through Reno is running around 200 cubic-feet-per-second (CFS).  Most of the water in the river, however, is not making it to Pyramid Lake, captured instead at Derby Dam and sent to Lahontan Reservoir through a canal.

Unfortunately, Pyramid Lake’s elevation continues to fall due significantly to the diversion of Truckee River water into the canal built by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1905 as its very first project. Water is taken out of the Truckee and sent through an unlined canal from Derby diversion dam on the Truckee all the way to Lahontan Dam on the Carson River. Since the beginning of the drought in 2000, Pyramid Lake has fallen approximately 27 feet in elevation exposing large land areas previously covered by water including shrinking the Lake on its south end to puddles near the mouth of the river. Most of the loss of water to Pyramid Lake is due to diversions to the Newlands Project, however, rather than the drought itself. (More on this later)

Derby Dam on the Truckee River diverts Truckee River water to the Carson River for the Newlands Irrigation Project starting in 1905.

Derby Dam on the Truckee River diverts Truckee River water to the Carson River for the Newlands Irrigation Project starting in 1905.

The Truckee Canal diversions have resulted in the loss of Winnemucca Lake in the valley adjacent to Pyramid Lake and the approximately 80 foot drop in elevation of Pyramid Lake itself since the early 1900s. This amounts to an approximately 8 million acre-foot water deficit for Pyramid Lake, the largest body of water entirely within Nevada or, in other words, represents nearly two decades worth of the average flow of the Truckee River that Pyramid Lake never received.

Pyramid Lake benefits from high precipitation years because of reduced diversions from the river when flows are high. During the drought starting in 2000 there have only been two periods of significant flows to Pyramid Lake which raised its level over the previous year. (click to see photo comparison at full size)

Pyramid at Pyramid Lake changes over recent decade and a half are dramatic

Pyramid at Pyramid Lake changes over recent decade and a half are dramatic

Will this year produce snow and rain that will finally raise Pyramid Lake’s level again and restore the flows to the Truckee River?


Click the either of the images below to see them full size.

Rain with more coming

Boreal Ridge Ski webcam screen capture on morning of 10/28/16

Lake Tahoe once again is seeing a bounce from a wet and warm weather system. As of the morning on Friday, October 28 Tahoe’s elevation has risen about 0.1 feet or just about 1.2 inches. If the rain continues, Tahoe will continue to rise as rain falls directly on the lake as well as additional inflow from streams.

Lake Tahoe Elevation October 28, 2016

Lake Tahoe Elevation October 28, 2016

Tahoe is a big lake so a 1.2″ rise represents a significant amount of water.  Rain should continue on and off today in the mountains and Truckee Meadows and then showers and rain again on Sunday.  The National Weather Service reports that we could set a precipitation record for October in Reno given previous wet storms and this series of storms. Snow levels at this point are high with rain on most of the mountain passes. By Sunday, the National Weather Service says snow levels will lower to around the Lake Tahoe elevation.

Below are captures of webcams from Boreal Ridge Ski and Heavenly Valley Ski areas around 8:38 am on Friday 10/28.  They show a sodden landscape – but free of snow at this point.

Boreal Ridge Ski webcam screen capture on morning of 10/28/16

Boreal Ridge Ski webcam screen capture on morning of 10/28/16. Boreal is on the crest of the Sierra Nevada and is just west of the divide between the Truckee River and the South Yuba River.

Heavenly Valley Ski webcam screen capture on morning of 10/28/16

Heavenly Valley Ski webcam screen capture on morning of 10/28/16. Southeast shore of Lake Tahoe from ski run above Stateline, NV.

Tahoe rises; still below rim

Pyramid Lake as rain moves in from the west

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

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.

Not literally, I hope.

For a perspective on just how much less runoff we’ve gotten, look at a past article “Just 14 years ago …”  written in 2014.

Truckee River at Tahoe City receives no water from Lake Tahoe.

Truckee River at Tahoe City receives no water from Lake Tahoe.

Lake Tahoe forecast to rise above rim

Lake Tahoe at Zephyr Cove Pier. Tahoe's water elevation on January 20 stands 7" below its rim so no water can flow into the Truckee River from the Lake.

On December 1 Lake Tahoe’s elevation was 6,221.47 feet. Today, the last day of 2015 Lake Tahoe stands 0.13 feet higher at 6,221.60 – still 1.4 feet below its rim (16.8 inches).  The latest forecast from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for Lake Tahoe indicates that it will rise above its rim allowing water to flow into the Truckee River at Tahoe City. Lake Tahoe has been below its rim since October 17, 2014. Previously, the Lake dropped below its rim in 2009.

Predicted runoff for the Truckee River Basin for 2016.

Predicted runoff for the Truckee River Basin for 2016. The black line represents the “median” projected runoff.

The NRCS predicts that the Truckee River will flow at 98 percent of average for the forecast season. The Reno-Gazette Journal today reported that “[t]he forecast combines snowpack data with historical records to predict how much water people can expect to flow into Lake Tahoe and the region’s river.”

While there is more optimism about an average, or even above average, snowpack this year, where we will end up on April 1 is still unknown. We all hope that winter will continue to produce above average snow and rain.

Common Goldeneye duck on the Truckee River near Idlewild Park, Reno

Common Goldeneye on the Truckee near Idlewild Park