Wells going dry

If you’ve driven from Reno to Carson City recently, you know that Washoe Lake is now Washoe Puddle. This is largely due to two straight dry winters. And the people downstream are suffering.

The Steamboat Ditch, which flows out of the lake and normally provides the water for irrigation, cattle, etc., in the valleys between Washoe Lake and Reno, is pretty much dry right now. This means ranchers are having to find ways to water their cattle, and it means that more than one alfalfa field in the Steamboat Valley is yellowing earlier than normal this year.

But the water problems go beyond that for people in the Steamboat Valley. My family knows this well; at one point, people several generations back on my family tree owned nearly the whole valley. My parents and an aunt and uncle still live out there, on Rhodes Road, as does my grandmother, Effie, who was born in that valley and has lived almost her entire 90 years of life there.

First, my grandmother’s well went out. The water got too low for the pump to do its job. A temporary solution has been engineered with a new, deeper pump, but the possibility remains that we may have to drill a new well if the water situation doesn’t improve. This is expensive and cumbersome—but really, what choice is there?

Second, a surreal thing’s happening to the trees at my family’s ranch: They’re acting like it is October, not August. Their leaves are yellowing and falling off. The ditch is dry, and the water table is low, meaning the trees aren’t getting the water they should be. My father, who is 58 and has lived in that valley almost his entire life, says he’s never seen anything like it.

Meanwhile, despite the drought and the obviously limited water supply, development continues unchecked in the Steamboat Valley. People who don’t even own water rights are taking water that they shouldn’t, and people who do own water rights were taking more than their fair share—at least until the water stopped, period. More houses are under construction, and more are on the way.

You can hear the sounds of hammers and saws that fill Steamboat Valley during the day. And while you can’t hear the silent prayers of ranchers and others in the valley during the night, anybody with half a brain knows what’s being asked for.

A wet winter.

Similar stories of dry wells and unchecked growth can be told about almost any “rural” part of Northern Nevada that isn’t so rural anymore. Steamboat Valley isn’t the only place where wells are going dry, and depending on the weather this winter and beyond, the upcoming years could see the water dry up in even more places.

This begs the question: Why do our local government agencies, who know there is only so much water to go around, keep approving new developments? Campaign contributions from developers? A lack of vision? Stupidity? And what is going to happen one day when the water runs out?

If you think this can’t happen, you may be in for an extremely unpleasant surprise.

An interesting piece in the current issue of Tahoe Quarterly, on the stands now, takes a Tahoe-centric stab at the issue. The article, written by D. Brian Burghart (an RN&R contributing editor, among his other duties), looks at an alarming possibility: What happens to Lake Tahoe if the water elsewhere runs out?

I also encourage you to read Deidre Pike’s excellent column, View From the Fray, on page 8, in which she takes a surreal look at what growth could mean to the future of water in the Truckee Meadows.

Growth, if there are resources available to support it, can be good. But the wells are already starting to go dry. And I, for one, don’t like being thirsty.