A before-and-after shot of the Truckee River restoration project
Beside the river at McCarran Ranch, a bunny hops away from a cottonwood tree. White wisps from the tree float in the air along with white cabbage butterflies and darting birds. A statuesque egret stands on a bank, then flaps its great wings to take off. Towering above nearby are two redtail hawk nests. A few feet down a path marked with deer hooves, a pair of baby quail scuttles beneath leaves of long grasses. A half dozen lizards skitter across a trail leading to two reed-heavy wetlands. Around another curve, a jack rabbit and his overgrown ears bound out of sight.
Everything here is flittering, skittering and scuttling. Yet, three years ago, the scene was quite different. “Prior to construction, this was a field of tall whitetop,” says Patti Bakker, Truckee River project manager for the four-pronged river restoration effort spearheaded by the Nature Conservancy.
A few miles upstream at Lockwood, restoration is underway. Meanders and riffles have been added. Native vegetation has been planted, and a community park is being constructed. If all goes as planned, Lockwood will look like McCarran Ranch in three years, though the sites are more like “before” and “after” pictures now. With a design based on aerial shots of the 1930s and historical references, the river is to resemble how it was before 150 years of human activity left it with scoured banks and damaged habitat.
In some ways, the Truckee River is like the forests surrounding Lake Tahoe. Humans logged those forests nearly to death in the late 1800s. Where nature once maintained forest health naturally, millions of dollars are now spent there for humans to mimic nature with heavy handed revegetation and fire-suppression efforts. Similarly, in the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened the Truckee to reduce flood damage. Problem is, the corps’ massive undertaking didn’t allow the river to reach the banks, so native vegetation couldn’t grow as it once did, and enterprising invasives, such as tall whitetop, moved in. Since then, 70 percent of riparian birds and 90 percent of the cottonwood canopy have been lost. The restoration is a human effort to put natural processes back in motion.
“We look at a lot of our work as jumpstarting an ecosystem,” says Nevada Nature Conservancy spokesperson Lisa Donalson.
After acquiring about 300 acres of the McCarran Ranch, the Nature Conservancy started a pilot project in 2003 to restore 20 acres along the river. With the help of federal grant funding and city, county and state partners, that project grew to a larger restoration effort in 2006 with 100 acres more and now includes three additional sites: 28 acres at Lockwood, 115 acres at 102 Ranch and 128 acres at Mustang Ranch, with roughly nine miles of river set to be restored.
Bakker says computer models show that the restoration project won’t make flooding any worse than it is now. It should actually improve it, along with water quality and species habitat, a trend fishermen and the Department of Wildlife anecdotally have already noted.
The Nature Conservancy highly welcomes volunteers to help during revegetation days, as well as to give tours of the sites to school groups and others interested. The next volunteer day is June 27 at 102 Ranch.