Dying lake ahead
A look at the fight for the survival of Walker Lake, one of the last remaining freshwater desert lakes in the world
Walker Lake really is a beautiful lake. Surrounded by Nevada’s trademark sagebrush-covered mountains, the lake glows an iridescent blue-green hue on sunny days. Recreational fishers can be seen pulling out the lake’s famed Lahontan cutthroat trout, along with other species of fish.
Loons flock there in the winter, escaping Saskatchewan’s bitter winter climate. But by next summer, all that may be left is a salty lake with no wildlife to speak of.
Walker Lake is dying.
After more than 130 years of agricultural diversions and devastating droughts, the freshwater terminus lake (it has no outlet) is threatened by saline levels that have reached high levels—nearly too high to support fish and the birds that feed on them.
The primary water source for the high-desert lake lying in the shadows of Mount Grant is the Walker River, which originates near Bridgeport, Calif. The New Year’s Flood that ravaged the Truckee Meadows a few years back provided a temporary respite for Walker Lake, says Mike Savon, a longtime Walker Lake supporter and biologist with the Nevada Division of Wildlife.
“If it weren’t for 1997, it might have already been too late.”
Lou Thompson doesn’t look like an environmentalist—at least not the stereotypical Eddie Bauer-wearing, granola-eating kind. He looks like a Nevadan, his worn skin reminiscent of the land he lives on, his clothes neither drawing on nor detracting from his personality—an Everyman in every way.
Thompson grew up in a ranching family in the Mason Valley, graduating from Yerington High School. He knows the importance of the farming communities in rural Nevada. He knows they need water.
But his sun-hardened face and agricultural background hide a man with a passion for a lake.
“We intend to use every available resource to save Walker Lake,” Thompson says. Last year, on Oct. 16, the Walker Lake Working Group he formed sued the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming negligence. “If that means going to court to enforce environmental laws, we’ll do that.”
If it hadn’t been for Thompson, perhaps no one outside of the Hawthorne area would have noticed as the fish died off and the loons disappeared from this northern Nevada gem.
Thompson contacted Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, assistant majority leader in the Senate and always a champion of environmental causes in Nevada. Reid had worked on similar problems at Pyramid Lake 10 years earlier and was familiar with the numerous problems at Walker Lake.
“Having a strong, secure nation is more than having things that explode and bullets that go fast,” Sen. Reid tells Hawthorne residents, environmentalists and ranchers during a recent trip there. “It’s also having strong, educated people concerned about the environment around us.”
In early April, two vans filled with members of several environmental and conservation organizations, media and Reid representatives head from Reno to Walker Lake, exploring the Nevada side of the Walker River Basin along the way, from Topaz Lake to the Mason Valley Water Management District to Weber Dam on the Walker River Paiute Tribe reservation.
During the trip, one issue seems to pop up more than any other: protecting the environment vs. a human’s right to make a living in Nevada and the West. Without water, farming, mining, ranching and tourism would wither and die. At Walker Lake, the upstream water rights suck up virtually all of the incoming water. The water in the Walker River is estimated to be 120 to 140 percent allocated. Only in very wet years does the lake see any significant water flowing in.
All along the river, farmers and ranchers have claimed shares of water, and it’s possible to get lost in the complexity of junior and senior water rights that determine who gets what and how much before the river can pass through the basin to the lake.
Everyone seems to agree that too much water is being diverted from Walker Lake. But those with water rights aren’t ready to make any sacrifices. The Walker River Paiute Tribe holds the most senior water rights, dating back to the 1850s. By the 1920s, available water rights were gone. The lake was quickly receding.
In Hawthorne, small signs dot the walk from the parking lot down to Walker Lake. Each one shows the lake level at various points throughout the last 120 years. One can directly trace a time line of water diversion on Walker River to a decline in Walker Lake’s water level.
In 1882, Walker Lake’s elevation was measured for the first time; it was slightly less than 4,100 feet above sea level. By 1900, the lake had already dropped about 35 feet.
The introduction of dams and diversions dropped the water level even more. By 1934, the year Weber
Dam was finished, the lake level was down about another 25 feet.
In 1948, with the lake down about another 25 feet, the carp inhabiting the lake died out. Just five years later, the once plentiful Lahontan cutthroat trout needed to be stocked. In 1963, the once-thriving perch brought in from the Sacramento area died out. The lake was down about 25 more feet.
On display during the visit were grainy, decades-old snapshots of huge 40-pound trout being pulled from the lake, which then licked at the edge of U.S. Highway 95. At a recent fishing derby, the winner pulled out a 5-pound 8-ounce trout. People were surprised—surprised that it was so big. Today the lake stands about 130 feet below what it was just 120 years ago. That’s more than 10 feet lost on average per decade.
Desert lakes of the West
Walker Lake is one of only six freshwater terminus lakes in the world. But luckily for Walker Lake, it has other lakes to look to for success stories: one just slightly to the north, Pyramid Lake and another to the west, Mono Lake.
Mono Lake may be the most famous lake in the West, besides Lake Tahoe. Its spiraling tufa rock formations create an almost psychedelic experience for those who see the lake. The lake is far too salty to sustain fish—saltier than the ocean. But the brine shrimp that thrive in the high-saline lake feed millions of birds every year—one of the few places these birds can feed on their yearly migration.
As with any water system in the West, however, people needed its resources. Instead of farmers and ranchers, though, in Mono Lake’s case, it was Los Angeles. The city diverted as much water as it could take from the Mono Lake and Owens Lake tributaries. From 1941 to 1979, Mono Lake dropped more than 40 feet. Its ecosystem began to collapse.
In 1978, Mono Lake found its savior in David Gaines. Gaines began to press hard for the preservation of the lake, quickly building the Mono Lake Committee to more than 20,000 members. The committee gained legal backing and fought the city of Los Angeles, and the group eventually won.
Pyramid Lake, the terminus of the Truckee River, faced similar threats 10 years ago. Fish weren’t spawning, saline levels were increasing, and the lake was dying. Several factors were blamed, including the Newlands Project, a governmental irrigation project in the Fallon area that was completed in 1908. The project diverted a lot of water from the Truckee River—enough to make the lake level drop 80 feet since 1903.
As is the case at Walker Lake, not many of those possessing water rights were willing to give them up. After all, Fallon had labeled itself the “oasis of Nevada,” an artificial title claimed by the diversion of water for agriculture from the Truckee River.
There has been no final resolution for Pyramid Lake, but an agreement over its water management system, the Truckee River Operating Agreement, may finally be at hand after 13 years of disputes. More water is getting to Pyramid Lake these days, and its ecosystem has been stabilized.
Owens Lake, on the other hand, didn’t have a savior. In 1913, Los Angeles started its diversions, and by 1926, the lake was gone. Now, in what was once a vibrant ecosystem, toxic dust loaded with arsenic, selenium and other carcinogens blow off the dry lakebed. The state of California now must pour millions of dollars per year into the Owens Valley to try to control the contamination problem—so far unsuccessfully.
Lou Thompson doesn’t want to see Nevada faced with an Owens Lake-type crisis. That’s why he enlisted Reid’s help—even though Fallon farmers had labeled the senator “the devil.”
In fact, this devil was exactly who Thompson was looking for—a widely known Nevadan who wasn’t afraid to take on the farmers in the fight to save Walker Lake.
Thompson could see the first-hand effects of water diversion on his beloved lake. Water levels had receded since his days as a child, many of which he spent playing in Walker Lake. He heard the stories his elders told about the great abundance of large fish in the lake in the late 1800s. He could even still pull decent-sized fish from the lake himself.
“There were plenty of fish around in all of the stories from the late 1800s,” Thompson says.
Although water rights play a large role in Walker Lake’s woes, several other things greatly affect the basin.
One problem is the abundance of tamarisk, or salt cedar. This non-native plant was brought over from Asia, in part to act as a windbreak. The thirsty plant sucks up a lot of water, and it spreads like wildfire.
Removal of the plant isn’t as simple as just hacking it off at the root and walking away, either, says Jo Simpson of the Bureau of Land Management.
“It’s a three-year process,” Simpson says. “It involves chemical treatment and burning before removal.”
The BLM has had some success with tamarisk. At a BLM work site near Barstow, Calif., prison crews were enlisted to get rid of the pesky plant. It didn’t take long to see a change in the landscape.
“It was dry, cracked land before we removed it,” Simpson says. “Now you can’t walk through that area because it’s so wet.”
No one has any estimates on how much more water would be added to the water system if the tamarisk were removed, but many people seem to think it would be worth the effort.
Then there’s Weber Dam on the Paiute reservation. The dam is old and leaking and needs repair. But even when the dam worked, it stopped the spawning of trout upstream, preventing a self-sustaining trout population. Tribal representatives are quick to point out that the dam was built after other dams and diversions were put in place along the river.
“If there was any stoppage of the spawning of the trout, it happened before our dam was in place,” says tribal member Elveda Martinez.
But Weber Dam is still the closest dam to the lake, with no others in the immediate area. The trout were spawning up until 1934, when the dam was completed, effectively blocking trout from swimming upstream to lay eggs.
Federal funding from the Indian Dam Safety Act will help the Paiutes build a new dam, but it won’t help pay for a fish ladder, something that is seen as an improvement. The Paiutes are willing, they say, to have a fish ladder, which would let the trout get past the dam and continue to spawn. But they don’t have the money to build one.
Saving the lake
Paiute tribal members were once called Agai Dicutta, or trout-eaters. But as agriculture became more integral to the tribe’s survival, concerns about Walker Lake dwindled.
The tribe makes it clear that want to see the lake saved, but they also show deep concern for the livelihood of farmers in the tribe.
In an effort to reduce strain on farmers and ranchers, Sen. Reid is backing a farm bill in the Senate that would include incentives to farmers who switch away from high-water crops, like the popular alfalfa, to low-water crops, like native Indian rice.
Martinez says that Paiute farmers would be reluctant to switch their crops without the guarantee that they could be profitable. But, she stresses, if they were productive, the tribe would switch its crops.
“Everybody isn’t going to get what he or she wants,” Martinez says. “But everybody needs to come to the table. We don’t want to see the lake go. We don’t want to see the fishery go.”
The sorry state of the lake saddens Andrew Allen, a senior tribal member. Allen speaks of his memories to Sen. Reid, concerned citizens and environmentalists gathered in a small conference room in Hawthorne.
“I see Walker Lake. I see how high the water was,” Allen says. His voice is deep, rhythmic and filled with melancholy. “It’s very, very depressing to see where the water is now.” He pauses for a moment as he looks around the room. “I know the fish aren’t going to last much longer if we don’t get water to the lake.”
He bows his head in prayer, speaking in his native tongue. While few in the room can understand him, everyone knows what he is praying for. He prays for the lake, the fish, the land and the dream that he will once again see the Walker Lake of his childhood.