Requiem for a lake

It took a century and a half to kill off one of Nevada’s great aquatic treasures. Is this really the end for Walker Lake?

First photo: An alkaline shoreline is left behind as Walker Lake loses about 14,000 acre-feet of water to evaporation in two summer months. Second photo: A prayer totem waves goodbye to the dead; Walker Lake will soon be one among them. Third photo: A dry shoreline leads to the junction of the Walker River and Walker Lake far off in the distance.

First photo: An alkaline shoreline is left behind as Walker Lake loses about 14,000 acre-feet of water to evaporation in two summer months. Second photo: A prayer totem waves goodbye to the dead; Walker Lake will soon be one among them. Third photo: A dry shoreline leads to the junction of the Walker River and Walker Lake far off in the distance.

Photo By David Robert

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Walker Lake is poised to die. The lower Walker River has been dry for six years. The lake has no water rights. Farmers in the Smith, Mason and Antelope valleys have rights to more than 500 percent of the river’s average annual flow, leaving the once robust spawning grounds of the Lahontan cutthroat trout a muddy ditch. Lake volume is down from 9.1 million acre-feet in 1882 to 1.2 million today. Lake level is dropping four feet a year. Scientists say complete ecosystem collapse is likely in less than six years, unless a regular supply of water is re-established.

This year, more than ever, I want to stand where the river is supposed to meet the lake. I am going to the river’s mouth to best experience the lack of water, a full embrace.

Leaving Reno heading east on Interstate 80, I follow the Truckee River, which is running strong. As with the Walker, most Truckee River water ends its life in farm fields. South of Fallon on Route 95, soggy rows of alfalfa spread flat to the horizon, nearly covered with Truckee River water. The neatly tilled rows were once dried lake bottom, desert. Now tender sprouts reach for the sky, water shining blue around the rows.

Forty miles farther down the road, cresting the Desert Mountains, I spot the small town of Schurz at the bottom of an ancient basin. I see the entire road, from my bumper to the entrance of the Walker River Indian Reservation, 20 miles away. The delicate sweeping line to the bottom of the valley shows the predictable math of slowly receding water, time and gravity—a sagebrush-and-sand parabola.

Fifteen thousand years ago, ancient Lake Lahontan covered most of what is now northeastern Nevada. Walker is a remnant of that primitive lake, now only 4 miles long and a mile and a half wide. Where Schurz is today was once dark, 800 feet below the waves.

Evidence of Lake Lahontan is everywhere. Bathtub rings stripe down the mountainsides, terraces of horizontal lines. The repeated shore lines imply the waves and wind of long-gone storms, the creation of endless clouds, a world with bluer skies and strange plants, giant anteaters. What are now peaks were once islands.

Trails of smoke drift skyward from houses on the reservation. The Walker River snakes along the bottom of the valley, marked by thicker vegetation and an occasional cottonwood tree. I can’t see it yet, but Walker Lake is 10 miles south of and 1,000 feet below Schurz, once one of the deepest, most secret parts of the prehistoric lake.

The speed limit through Schurz is 25. I slow to 15 as I cross the dribbling Walker River. Craning my neck to look over the guard rail, I see lazy—almost stagnant—water 5 feet wide at the bottom of the 20-foot-deep river bed. I do not expect any of that water to flow more than another mile. Ten minutes south of Schurz, the lake appears shimmering in the distance below, the Gillis range velvety brown to the left, towering Mount Grant to the right. The lake is where mountains and desert meet.

In a symbolic gesture, the Nevada Division of Wildlife (NDOW) recently released 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Mason Valley Wildlife Management Area. Walker Lake loses that much water to evaporation in two summer months. The one-time-only release will not interrupt the lake’s exponential decline. NDOW officials say the effort is intended to inspire other Walker River water users to conserve, ideally releasing surplus to the river.

With the help of federal funding, NDOW plans to overhaul the marshy refuge so it uses less water to provide the same amount of habitat, which ultimately means more water for the lake. But by itself, the savings from the management area are not nearly enough to support the sprawling ecosystem. Most agree that river water users need to act together.

Irrigation pipes take water to the farming fields in Yerington, practically flooding the crops.

Photo By David Robert

Water diversions began in the last half of the 19th century. Water rights have been allocated according to the prior-appropriation doctrine: first in time, first in water right. Little consideration was given to the effect of diversions on Walker Lake.

Today, numerous lawsuits are pending that would reallocate Walker River water with the lake in mind, though considering the terminal state of the ecosystem, tangled lawsuits may not change the entrenched situation quickly enough to save the dying lake. Discussions are taking place twice a month under the leadership of a professional mediator, but as of now no real solution has been presented to the public, and the lake is all but dead.

All major stakeholders are at the table: the states of Nevada and California, Lyon, Mono and Mineral counties, the Walker Lake Working Group, the Walker River Irrigation District, and the federal government, which represents the Walker River Paiute Tribe and all federal agencies in the region. A gag order is in effect, prohibiting participants from talking about negotiations.

A federal judge in Reno recently authorized a plan in which the Walker River tribe proposes to let its 2,000 acres of farmland go fallow, leaving the irrigation water for the lake. The tribe will not comment on how willing its farmers are to stop farming, but at least it’s a sign of meaningful concession.

Mike Turnipseed is director of Nevada’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and also leads Nevada’s delegation in the mediated talks. He’s hopeful the lake will be saved. “I think we’ll get there. We have to come to a resolution. The public will not stand by and watch Walker Lake die.”

Optimism aside, a lot would have to change for natural spawning runs to begin again. The massive Weber dam would have to be destroyed. The Walker River Paiutes control the 1930s-era dam that creates the Weber Reservoir and ensures the Paiutes get their small allotment of water. Diversion dams all along the river would have to be dismantled. Farming would have to be significantly curtailed. There’s no convenient solution to 150 years of ambitious bad planning.

Two years ago in mid-March, I walked up the Walker River from the lake to see if the ancient river/lake system was indeed severed, and it was. I found the stagnant tip of the Walker River about a mile and a half from the lake, a foot wide, impotent and tired. So now, two years later, the lake has crossed an ominous biological threshold, and the mouth of the river is still near dry.

If it weren’t for diversions and significant groundwater pumping, melting mountain snow would gorge the river and lake, even in years of low snow pack. The lake is one-fourth what it would be if all diversions were stopped. Spring is the season when, before white settlement, spawning Lahontan cutthroat trout swam nearly 100 miles into California and the Sierra, vigorous and thick. It’s a morbid distinction to be alive at the end of a cycle so old.

The problem is high salinity. Walker is a terminal lake, meaning there is no surface outflow. Water evaporates, leaving behind solids, salts. Since the late 1980s, biologists have been predicting that when total dissolved solids (TDS) reach 14,000 parts per million, fish will not endure. The TDS level in Walker Lake just passed 15,000, and biologists’ warnings were correct.

For the past two years, the Tui chub has not reproduced. No one would notice the absence of the small silvery fish other than migratory waterfowl, the endangered Lahontan cutthroat trout and horrified biologists. The Tui chub is the backbone of the lake’s vertebrate food chain. Big fish and birds do indeed eat little fish, and Lahontan cutthroat trout and loons have been eating the dutiful Tui chub for millennia. The death of the small fish means the beginning of the end.

Next spring, the Nevada Division of Wildlife may cut the number of trout it stocks in Walker Lake by as much as 90 percent. The stocking program is at an end-point of diminishing returns. Before hatchery-raised fish are released into the wild, they are gradually introduced to lake water. The salty water kills one-third of the young fish, a big increase from just two years ago. As a trend, rising hatchling mortality could mean the complete collapse of the hatchery systems for both Pyramid and Walker lakes.

Bead, tobacco and money offerings are left at the grave of visionary Walker River Paiute Wovoka (Wood Cutter), aka Jack Wilson.

Photo By David Robert

Close-up, the lake looks like an abandoned open-pit gold mine. Steep, regular terraces ring the water. Over ages, as Lake Lahontan dried, Paiute and Shoshone followed the shore lines as they slowly evolved. The change was so gradual, no one person lived to tell about it. The journey of the shifting beaches was the stuff of collective awareness and story, spanning generations. But now, in the end days, change is more poignant.

Paiute elder Andy Alan once told me, “The water used to be up next to the road. Not way down there. I remember I used to be scared to go swimming in there when I was a kid. The fish were so big I thought they’d eat me. Now when people swim in it, their eyes burn. It’s a puddle.”

Dropping four feet a year, simple math says the 100-foot-deep lake will disappear in 25 years. But actually, hydrologists say, lake level will stabilize when it dwindles to 40 feet deep. That’s when the evaporation rate from the shrunken surface area will match the meager inflow of water from direct precipitation and ground seeps.

I park my truck in the sand and hike north, along the western shore, toward the mouth of the Walker River. The delta is only three miles off, but loose sand and bowling-ball-sized granite rocks make for slow going. For 20,000 years, this region has known the gradual encroachment of light. New to the waterless world, the beach appears, shocked and white.

Last year, hikers found skeletal remains among newly exposed rocks. Long-sleeping bones once again cast a shadow, like it or not. I recall Walker River Paiute Raymond Hofer warning me about tampering with Indian dead. He said people who as much as touch them could get sick and die as a result. As far as I know, I am alone, except for a pair of seagulls. Looking across the lake to the south, hazy vapor vibrates into the desert sky. Through the haze, snowy mountains appear blue and wavy. Water vapor spirals into the air, to fall as rain in Utah, Colorado or maybe Texas.

After a mile or so, granite boulders disappear. The beach is made of loose sand and light gravel. I walk inches from the nearly calm water where the sand is wet and firm. Three years earlier, on this very stretch of beach, I attended a Paiute ceremony intended to save the lake. Walking along the beach, I remember Raymond Hofer smoking the ceremonial pipe with his wife and Andy Alan watching with reverence. Hofer, skinny, hunched, the color of dark copper, stood in the water up to his knees, lightly pounding a drum and singing traditional songs, thanking the lake for providing life.

Later, sitting cross-legged in front of his temporary house made of boughs, reed mats and a blue tarp or two, he explained, “Our people are known as Agaicutta, or the trout eaters. If this lake dies, we die with it. I’m praying to the spirits for strong winter snows in the mountains. I’m also praying we find the strength and power to get some water back from the farmers. The farmers have to give some to the lake, now.”

As I remember these words and Hofer’s ceremony, I notice a skinny cottonwood sapling stuck in the sand. His totem is still there. The frazzled and bleached Ghost Dance banners still wave three years after the ceremony, colorful, tattered cloth fingers tied every six inches along the trunk.

“It’s a bridge,” he said. “It connects this world with the world of the dead. These cloths wave to the dead people.”

I look across the lake at the old railroad bed that cuts across the gently sloping foothills. Paiutes granted a right-of-way for the train in 1880 and in return were to be given free transportation for themselves and their cargo. The Carson and Colorado Railroad reneged on the agreement in less than a year, but for a while Paiutes were allowed to ride on top of the train cars, gratis. Many suffered terrible burns from the hot ash that fell from the steam engine’s smoking boiler stack. I imagine them patting each other all the way to Yerington or Wadsworth, old women and children with holes in their hats, hair and government-issue coats. I can see the train puffing along the lakeside tracks, sooty Indians on top, waving—waving to Hofer’s banners and their dead relatives rising up out of the lake.

Hofer said he was holding a Ghost Dance ceremony. He was asking the spirit of Walker River Paiute Jack Wilson—or Wovoka (the Wood Cutter)—for help saving the lake. In 1890, Jack Wilson said he met God while in a trance state. God told Wilson everyone was related, brothers. Through Jack Wilson, God commanded the living to be nice to each other, white and Indian, all people. While visiting God, Wilson said he saw heaven, where everyone who had died was young and healthy again, and all people lived together in peace.

Don McIvor, director of bird conservation for the Audubon Society, worries about the loons that make Walker Lake a regular stop on their migratory trip north during the spring.

Photo By David Robert

But whites viewed Wovoka’s religion as a threat. Indians noticeably found strength in Wilson’s prophetic visions. The movement ended violently with the massacre at Wounded Knee, in South Dakota. After that, Walker River Paiutes, and most Indians, stopped doing the ghost dance. The ceremony endured in secret among the Sioux. Recently, Sioux elders shared the dance with Walker River Paiutes, and so once again a Paiute practices the Ghost Dance. Hofer hoped Wovoka’s spirit would help his tribe overcome apathy.

“Anymore, all people do on the reservation is watch Jerry Springer and smoke menthols … play bingo. Nobody cares no more about the lake except for me and a couple of the elders. Like I said, if this lake dies, we die. I want Wovoka to help people remember that.”

I leave Hofer’s fluttering totem behind, headed another mile or so to the mouth of the Walker River. Before long, loose sand turns to soft mud. Pods of short brown grass mark the beginning of the Walker River delta. I pause near a small grassy pond, listening carefully. The pond is percolating—the sound of an infinite number of tiny pops and clicks and occasional farts of water and gas. I am standing on a swollen sheet of mud, a raw and desperate gill in the area’s groundwater system. From the pond, rivulets cut miniature foot-deep canyons, following water, flowing like pus from a wound.

For the first time on the trip, I see waterfowl. Two small clans of American coots circle in the cove where the lake reaches for the river. Spotted sandpipers skitter around in the shallow water and mud looking for food with their slender beaks.

Nevada’s director of bird conservation for the Audubon Society, Don McIvor, recently told me, “I don’t know what ecosystem collapse means for migrating birds.”

McIvor described the lake’s importance to loons, saying a group of roughly a thousand birds winter together in Mexico and spend summers in Saskatchewan, where they reproduce. The loons fly north during the spring and have stopped at Walker Lake for millennia. Typically the birds are exhausted and in desperate need of rest and food by the time they reach the high-desert lake. Walker Lake is a critical and irreplaceable link in the loon’s chain of survival. McIvor said it was difficult to know if the birds were aware of other possible resting spots, or if they’d even seek them, saying, “I don’t know if they have a map of the area in their heads.”

Neither Topaz nor Pyramid Lake provides the same fisheries resource as Walker. And Tahoe’s fish population is too widely dispersed in deep waters to be an adequate replacement. For McIvor, it’s a painful wait-and-see situation.

“It’s a death watch,” he said.

Perhaps the geese and loons will rest in the irrigation ditches of the Smith and Mason valleys, feasting on alfalfa until a farmer shoots them. Maybe they’ll stop coming this way altogether, or maybe they’ll just die off.

A seagull hovers above my head. The bird floats in the same space once occupied by millions of 4-foot-long Lahontan cutthroat trout. Where I am standing was 100 feet below the surface when Jack Wilson unified the Indian nations and racist newspaper editors called for the dissolution of the reservation. I imagine the water thick with yard-long fish, racing to the swollen river directly over my head, light flickering through the water around the squirming mass, casting lively blue stripes of light across the verdant bottom. Excited Paiutes stand ready to net and spear hundreds of frenzied fish to sell in Reno or to dry for weighty food in the fall and winter.

But instead, the festering delta appeared hemorrhoidal, sore, an oozing glacier of silt. A little farther on, I arrive at the river’s main channel, a mud canyon 5 feet deep and 100 yards wide. On this day, water is indeed running out of the river and into the lake. Not enough for a minnow to make a spawning run, but at least the lake is attached to the river. I step down into the ditch and stand in the middle of the flow right at the shore. There isn’t enough water to make the top of my boots wet.

View additional Cover story photos here.