Algae blues

Is Virginia Lake up a creek?

Virginia Lake’s island inspired the term “pit of poop” at a public meeting in September.

Virginia Lake’s island inspired the term “pit of poop” at a public meeting in September.


Virginia Lake project updates and a public meeting schedule are forthcoming at

On any given day, Virginia Lake is like a bustling, avian international airport—full of squawks and honks and clucks and coos as its feathered occupants go about their business.

Some say the urban hub for countless birds is poisoned by its own inhabitants, though, thanks to phosphorus in their droppings. Shallow, poorly circulating water also greatly contributes to the blue-green algae and resulting toxins in the man-made lake and surrounding ecosystem, and the ongoing drought has spurred many fish and bird deaths, including avian botulism cases last summer and fall.

“Because the water is so low, it heats quickly, and that’s what really exacerbates the algae growth,” said city spokeswoman Barbara DiCianno. “There are a number of contributing factors to the water quality.”

In September and December, the city of Reno sought input on four approaches to the problem: 1. Do nothing; 2. Improve water circulation; 3. Improve circulation and pare down the lake’s little island (a Southwest-oriented chunk of land that’s pretty much da club if you’re a bird); or 4. Improve circulation and destroy the island altogether.

City staff have since picked Option 2, though with no projected start date, and are buying time to study the lake further. Another public meeting may happen late next month, but even that is pretty tentative.

The Lahontan Audubon Society opposes changes to the island, and points to urban runoff and wintering birds—who’ll come anyway, island or no island—as worse culprits than resident cormorants who’re apparently blamed, poop-wise (it’s probably also worth noting a big construction zone is now in the mix on the lake’s east side). Not only is more study needed, said LAS president Jane Burnham, but the island itself matters. A lot.

“The major draw of Virginia Lake is its birds,” she wrote to the City Council and to Public Works Director John Flansberg. “The island is one of the few locations where the public can see birds nesting, and young being born and raised. It would be a tragedy if the island is destroyed, along with nesting habitat for native migratory birds, and no improvement in water quality is achieved.”

Virginia Lake was constructed in the late 1930s as a Work Projects Administration initiative. It’s long been stocked with a variety of fish, including rainbow trout, catfish, largemouth bass and black crappie. More than 100 types of wild birds visit or live there, too, and the island in particular is a nesting place for California gulls, double-crested cormorants and snowy egrets.

Water flows in via Cochran Ditch, in the lake’s northwest corner, and leaves through a screened drain. With circulation improvements, the outlet will sit further from the inlet, at a new point across the lake, so “the water coming in will travel the entire length of the lake, to circulate it, to oxygenate it before it goes out to the irrigation ditches and on its way,” DiCianno said.

Note the “on its way” part. Nothing is disappearing; it’s just returning to the watershed: to Steamboat Creek and Boynton Slough in Southeast Reno, and back to the Truckee River. One way or another, the toxins have to go.