Derby Dam: Fixing a 115 year old disaster?

Historical photo of Derby Dam at its dedication in 1905

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.

Locked gates at Derby Dam
Locked gates at Derby Dam

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

Historical photo of Derby Dam at its dedication in 1905
Derby Dam (1905) diverts Truckee River Water
away from Pyramid Lake into a canal for use in the Newlands Project

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.

Truckee River water cascades into Lahontan Reservoir at the end of the Truckee Canal.
Truckee River water cascades into Lahontan Reservoir at the end of the Truckee Canal.

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 …

Lahontan Cutthroat Trout at Sutcliffe fish hatchery on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation.
Lahontan Cutthroat Trout at Sutcliffe fish hatchery on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation.

… 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.

Derby Dam on the Truckee River diverts water to Lahontan Valley
Derby Dam on the Truckee River diverts water to Lahontan Valley

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 Appeal explained, “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.”

Credit: Farmers Conservation Alliance
Construction of fish passage at Derby Dam diversion April 2020. Credit: Farmers Conservation Alliance

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.

Sources: Nevada Appeal, McMillen Jacobs Associates, RGJ.com

USFWS: Recovery of LCT and Cui-ui

Fish Videos: Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, Cui-ui fish

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