Still water

Reno’s new whitewater rapids are getting less white and less rapid all the time

A kayaker tries out Reno’s new water park.

A kayaker tries out Reno’s new water park.

Photo By David Robert

Drought is probably the furthest thing from the minds of the sunbathers, kayak tricksters and inner-tube recliners enjoying Reno’s Whitewater Park this summer. Thanks to our upstream reservoirs, the Truckee River is, for the most part, a wet and wonderful place to be this summer. That will likely change sometime in September.

Lake Tahoe, our largest cistern, is a minimum of 1.22 feet above the natural rim (June 28, 2004) and evaporating at a rate of 2/100s of an inch per day. According to the federal Water Master’s Office—a staff of river cops who must figure out how to deliver the goods to water users based on 100 years of litigation—Tahoe will stop spilling toward Reno sometime in September.

Before Lake Tahoe hits the magical mark for the third straight year, Boca, Prosser, Independence, Donner and Stampede reservoirs will be drawn upon to make up for the lackluster snow pack last winter. By fall Boca Reservoir will again be drawn almost dry, while Prosser will be down to 21 percent of its capacity, according to projections from the Water Master’s Office.

The continued draw on our reservoirs and the earlier demise of the Tahoe water means we will begin the next snow season in even greater deficit. It will take a bigger winter than last year to make us whole.

Even with these backup water reservoirs, where you are on the river will determine whether you are boating or biking.

By federal decree, drinking water supplies get first crack at the river. If the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA) takes its allotment out at Chalk Bluff Treatment Plant in west Reno, that will mean less flow for the downtown water park. If the TMWA water flows through to the Glendale Treatment Plant on the Sparks border, the downtown river park will get some of its most important ingredient.

The complicated river system—not just drought—takes its toll on various sections of the Truckee.

“We will see profound impact below Derby Dam,” said Michael Cameron, Truckee River project director for the Nature Conservancy. “Almost all of the flow will be diverted from the river, and the whole food web, right down to the insects, will be affected.”

The Nature Conservancy has embarked on a program to turn the McCarran Ranch near Mustang into what the Truckee River used to be. Thousands of trees and tons of native plant seeds and seedlings have been placed along the river corridor east of Sparks. The mild spring has given this effort a good start, Cameron said.

Downstream, Derby Dam marks the starting point of the Truckee Canal, which diverts water from the natural river system to Fallon and the desert reclamation project managed by the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District (reclamation is the technique of turning desert into farmland). Farmers should get three or four alfalfa cuttings this season thanks to some new efficiency programs and temporary water transfers, reports TCID Director Lyman McConnell.

“The snow pack was about 100 percent in February, and then it just got too hot and dry. We are down about 50 percent of normal by April,” McConnell said.

The current drought cycle was punctuated by the 2000-01 water year, when Reno’s rain total (2.13 inches) was the lowest since 1872, when measuring began.

The water watchers say the best guess for downtown this late summer and early fall is about 100 cubic feet per second (cfs). (The cfs is a standard measurement for river flow. If the river’s flowing at 100 cfs, imagine 100 basketballs—which are about a cubic foot in size—flowing by the Arlington Street Bridge each second. Each basketball would hold about 7.5 gallons of water. Wait at the bridge for almost 4 minutes, and that’s how much a typical Truckee Meadows home uses each year.)

The 100 cfs flow rate is a break-even point for a healthy river, according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife. Most fish have to huddle for shade and deep spots or face a boiled demise. Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is calling on about 60 cfs to maintain fish flows.

However, there is currently no mandated minimum stream flow for the Truckee River. The negotiated settlement among the Truckee’s major water users calls for this management practice, but the 20-year talks on the settlement have yet to be brought to a final resolution.

Another source of water for the whole river is the result of a water quality lawsuit prompted by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Tax dollars to purchase water rights to keep the river wet in poor water years. This dilution program helps the sewer plant meet water quality standards in the river, keeping fisheries active and Pyramid Lake protected. Last year, this fledgling program added about 20 cfs to the river, reports Rob Scanland, of Great Basin Land & Water, which helps acquire water rights and manage the program for the local governments.

During the last week of June, the Whitewater Park was enjoying a little more than 300 cfs, and Jim Bell, owner of Sierra Adventures, was renting vinyl kayaks, boogie boards and inner tubes to both tourists and locals.

“Right now is a better time for beginners. There are more eddies and rest spots. It’s a little tamer,” Bell said. “This is my first year down here, so I’ve never seen what happens in a drought.”

The optimal design for the Whitewater Park is a healthy 450 cfs, according to Jim Litchfield, engineer and whitewater activist who designed the river playground.

“We are in the fifth year of drought, and the park is designed to optimize the lowest flows with pools and drops for wading, fishing and tubing,” Litchfield said. “What we anticipated is a change in the user group. Right now, we aren’t going to see the hardcore kayaker type. We did design the park for the lowest common denominator, which was to make it fun for everyone.”

The Whitewater Park has tapped into a tourist segment other than Reno’s traditional weekend gambler. Thanks to the current drought cycle, the river park and every user on the watershed will be "betting on the come" in hopes that Mother Nature rolls a wet winter.