HAWTHORNE, Nev. - At sunset, Walker Lake glows from the floor of this desert valley, its silver-smooth surface reflecting the colors of the open Nevada sky. On the lake's western shore, Mount Grant in the craggy Wassuk Range peaks at more than 11,000 feet; the gentler Gillis Range lies across the water. From the quiet highway to the south, the lake and its valley are a beautiful sight.
The town of Hawthorne, on the
edge of the lake, is not.
Fifty years ago, there
were 15,000 people here, and a thriving Army depot provided
hundreds of jobs. But the depot tightens its belt every year, and
now there are barely 6,000 people in all of Mineral County. In
Hawthorne, where Highway 95 passes for a main street, boarded-up
windows are commonplace, most of the motels look as if they have
hourly rates, and you can buy a two-bedroom house for $30,000. A
single casino draws occasional travelers on their way to Reno or
"We're enough off the beaten path that
it's difficult to attract industry," says Lou Thompson, a retired
Department of Defense employee and the chairman of the Walker Lake
Working Group. "There's no airport here, no railroad, and only a
Hawthorne and its Army depot
aren't the only things dwindling in Mineral County, though. Walker
Lake is, too.
When Thompson lived here as a
teenager in the 1950s, he remembers, he would dive off a barge into
the lake's deep, alkaline waters. Last year, he found that same
diving barge, tangled in the scrub and 50 feet from
There are only six desert terminal lakes
in the world with freshwater fisheries. Walker Lake is one of them.
But in the thirsty Great Basin, lakes aren't left alone - the
rivers that feed them are pumped and diverted to turn the desert
green. Walker River, which once fed Walker Lake, has watered the
desert for decades, and the lake is now one-fifth its size at the
turn of the century. As it's shrunk, its waters have become more
and more alkaline, and its native fish population has
Thompson and his supporters know that
ghost lakes can make ghost towns, and for more than seven years
they've been fighting to keep their lake alive. They've watched the
struggles over Mono Lake and Pyramid Lake, their better-known
neighbors, and they think their group can build the public and
political support to win similar victories. But many of the water
users upstream say Walker Lake is better off
Just about an hour's drive from Hawthorne,
on the other side of the California state line, the tiny town of
Lee Vining sits on the shores of Mono Lake. In the middle of town,
the Mono Lake Committee runs a well-stocked bookstore, where
travelers wander past displays about the lake and page through
expensive coffee-table books on the region. The committee has 15
paid staffers and more than 15,000 members from all over the
The committee's comfortable surroundings
are evidence of its success. Starting with a few dedicated
supporters, the group worked for almost two decades to make
Californians aware of Mono Lake, and it eventually helped save a
lake that most people had given up for dead. Los Angeles agreed to
keep its hands off the lake until the water level stabilized (HCN,
12/8/97), and the Mono Lake Committee changed its bumper-sticker
slogan from "Save Mono Lake" to "Restore Mono Lake."
"We've got protections for Mono Lake now that
make the Walker Lake people green with envy," says Gary Nelson, the
committee's canoe-tour director.
This success may
be what Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had in mind for Walker
Lake when he called it "Nevada's Mono Lake" during a visit to the
area in early 1999.
But Walker Lake isn't sexy.
It lacks the photogenic rock formations that line the shores of
Mono Lake. There is a stark beauty to Walker Lake's treeless,
flat-bottomed valley, but the peaks of the Sierra Nevada above Mono
Lake have greater mass appeal. And while Mono Lake is at Yosemite's
back door, Hawthorne is on the way to nearly nowhere. So far, the
Walker Lake Working Group doesn't have the urban base of support
that's helped to keep the Mono Lake Committee going for so many
"Mono Lake is right on Highway 395, so
when we started, a lot of people at least knew it existed," says
Nelson. "There are a bunch of people who don't even know that
Walker Lake is there."
Walker Lake does have
something Mono Lake doesn't. It has fish. The fish attract
fishermen - and thousands upon thousands of migratory birds each
year. But those fish are in deep trouble.
the first people to recognize the plight of Walker Lake was Mike
Sevon, a biologist from the Nevada Division of Wildlife. In the
late 1980s, when Nevada was at the beginning of a seven-year
drought, Sevon received data from a biologist in Canada showing a
sharp, drought-related decline in the Lahontan cutthroat trout and
tui chub populations in nearby Pyramid Lake. The data had been
sealed in court for years because of a water-rights dispute, and
Sevon's Canadian colleague was one of the few people to get a copy
when the court battle ended.
In 1991, the drought
was worse than ever, and Sevon used the long-hidden data to make
some predictions. Since the water chemistry in Walker Lake is
similar to that in Pyramid Lake, his calculations proved what Sevon
already suspected: Drought and diversion were killing off the fish
in Walker Lake.
"Not only were we within two to
three years of the level when we'd lose the (Lahontan) cutthroat
trout, but we were within two to four years of the level when the
tui chub would no longer successfully spawn," he says. "We were
close to the edge of losing Walker Lake."
in the Walker River system have never had it easy. Early in the
century, the fish swam downstream from the river's headwaters in
the Sierra Nevada to spawn in the lake each year. In the mid-1930s,
after the Walker River Paiute tribe built Weber Dam on its
reservation, a few miles upstream from the lake, the migration
ended. Although the state now stocks the lake with Lahontan
cutthroat each year, the increased alkalinity and sediment load
caused by the drought were making it harder and harder for the
hatchery fish to survive. And since tui chub, the trout's main
food, are very difficult to reintroduce, their disappearance could
mean a permanent end to the trout's food
Sevon took his evidence to the Mineral
County commissioners, who listened closely. They feared the die-off
would drive away the crowds of fishermen who camp in the Bureau of
Land Management campgrounds on the
"The recreational value of the lake is
a valuable commodity to the county," says commissioner Arlo Funk.
"And there's potential for more development out there, if we can
only get a definite commitment to water."
commissioners responded to the crisis by organizing a group of
concerned Hawthorne residents called the Walker Lake Working Group.
Some were interested in increasing tourism in the county; some
placed more importance on restoring the lake for wildlife. All
wanted to see the lake's level go
One of those concerned citizens was Lou
Thompson, who had moved back to the area after he retired in 1991.
"When I was growing up, everyone knew the lake dropped about a foot
a year, and they didn't think anything about it," he says. "But
when I came back, I started asking questions, and when you start
asking questions, all of a sudden you're the one in charge."
As chairman of the working group, which now has
about a dozen active members, Thompson's first question was the
toughest: How could his group get water into a lake with no water
The Walker River system is governed by a
1936 court decree and a compact between California and Nevada. The
agreements set storage levels for three upstream reservoirs and
established diversion rights along the length of the river, but
didn't allocate any water to the lake itself. In fact, existing
water rights add up to about 130 percent of the river's average
flow. In all but the wettest years, little if any water reaches the
Any attempt to change the decree would
throw the Walker Lake group into a battle with the Walker River
Irrigation District, at 80,000 acres the largest irrigation
district in the state of Nevada - and one of the most productive.
The district sends Walker River water to farmers in the Smith and
Mason valleys in Lyon County.
"Most of the people
farming here have been here a long, long time. Generations," says
Leo Havener, head of the Walker River Irrigation District. "The
people here farm because this is what they like to do. They know
how to farm, and they know they need water to do it."
Another user, the Walker River Paiute Tribe,
irrigates roughly 6,000 acres with Walker River water, supporting
about 60 ranchers and alfalfa farmers. While tribal members say
they're concerned about the lake's fishery, they are already
involved in a legal battle to get water rights for about 80,000
acres of land that were restored to the tribe in the 1940s. They
say the reservation doesn't have water to
"The tribe uses about 1 percent of the
water in the system. There are single users upstream who use more
water than the entire tribe," says Tribal Chairman Cassidy
Williams. "The amount of water the tribe uses doesn't even match
the evaporation rate from the lake."
did not look good for the lake when the working group formed in
1992. The irrigation district and the tribe were not about to
willingly give up water. Challenging them in court required legal
standing, something neither the fish nor the working group had, and
the group didn't have the money to buy water rights. Even more
important, the group didn't have a strategy. Squeezed by drought
and lack of political and legal clout, many members feared they'd
lost the lake.
In the midst of this crisis, the working
group found a champion. John Singlaub, who runs the Carson City,
Nev., field office of the Bureau of Land Management, calls himself
the agency's "principal cheerleader" for Walker
"When I arrived here in 1994, my first
question was, "What are people doing to protect the lake?" The
answer was usually, "We're praying for rain," "''''says Singlaub.
"There's no one clearly responsible in the federal government for
saving lakes, but we're the principal landowner around the lake. I
said, "Let's at least give this a try." "
his first steps was to attend a Walker River Irrigation District
meeting in Yerington, about an hour's drive north of Hawthorne. He
told a roomful of irrigators that his agency wanted to acquire
water rights on the river for the benefit of Walker Lake. The
irrigators weren't pleased.
"That was the talk in
the coffee shops of Yerington for weeks," he
Yerington is in the heart of the most
fertile agricultural land in Nevada, and the town is prosperous.
Unlike Hawthorne, Yerington's main street is bustling, and though
many operations are small, family-owned alfalfa or vegetable farms,
millionaires such as John Ascuagua and Barron Hilton own cattle
ranches in the nearby Mason Valley.
people upstream whose pocket change is greater than the whole
budget of Mineral County," says Thompson.
County also swings a lot of political weight, since state assembly
speaker Joseph Dini represents the county's district. When Dini
first heard about the working group's efforts in 1992, he said the
lake wasn't worth saving.
"At the time, the
irrigation district clearly held all the cards," says Singlaub.
"There was no one stepping forward on behalf of the lake."
After Singlaub joined the battle, another ally
appeared. At the urging of the Mineral County Commission and the
Walker Lake Working Group, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called
attention to the problem at a national
Reid has gone to bat for the Great Basin's
lakes before (HCN, 9/28/98). The Newlands Project, a dam and canal
near Fallon, Nev., has been pulling water out of the Truckee River
for nearly a century. Downstream, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and
the endangered cui-ui fish have paid a heavy price, and Reid risked
his office to reform the Newlands Project and get more water into
the lake. Although he's back for a third term, his election in
November was a photo finish, and Reid's support for environmental
causes was blamed in part for his opponent's strong
Reid isn't put off by a hard fight, and
Walker Lake is benefiting from his tenacity. Mike Sevon calls
Reid's advocacy "a lifesaver," and Thompson calls Reid the lake's
"primary savior." Rose Strickland, a Sierra Club activist in Reno,
says Reid renewed activists' hopes.
met with him, no matter what it was about, his first question would
be, "What are you doing to help Walker Lake today?" And he really
wanted to know!" she says.
political support was welcome, but the lake also needed water
immediately. In the winter of 1995, Walker Lake got what it needed.
The Sierra Nevada Range was buried in snow, the drought came to a
spectacular end, and the lake level rose into the safety zone.
Since then, the water has just kept coming, though few feel secure
about the lake's future.
"We've had four terrific
winter snow years," says Strickland. "Mother Nature has saved our
bacon on Walker Lake. But human beings still need to do something
to protect it."
"The lake has risen 13 feet in four
years, but if we do go into a drought again, we're right back where
we started," says Chris Drake, who took over from Mike Sevon as the
Nevada Division of Wildlife's Walker Lake fisheries biologist when
Sevon was promoted in 1994. "My boss says I can't quit until the
lake reaches that level," he says, smiling and pointing to a
high-and-dry boat launch on the lake
During the reprieve the weather has given
them, Mineral County and the Walker Lake Working Group have
scrambled for long-term solutions. Unlike the Mono Lake Committee,
which was able to enforce California's public trust doctrine to
save its lake, the working group is up against Nevada's
irrigator-friendly water laws. But the lake's supporters have
persisted. In 1994, the county petitioned the court, asking to
intervene in the Walker River Paiute Tribe's challenge of the
decree governing the river's water.
officials and lake supporters "wanted to have a seat at the table
on behalf of Walker Lake," says Thompson.
federal district judge said the county must personally notify the
nearly 1,200 water users about its petition, so the Walker Lake
Working Group organized a handful of volunteers to knock on doors.
It's taken the group five years to complete the task, and it's
taken a lot of backbone, too. The Mono Lake Committee was able to
build some support for their cause in enemy territory - Los Angeles
- but the Walker Lake Working Group has had a different experience
in Lyon County.
"It was an exercise in courage
for many of us," Thompson says of the effort. "People were hostile.
It was not fun."
With the legal avenues full of
hurdles, the group concentrated on politics. Last year, the growing
state and national support for Walker Lake caught Babbitt's
attention. He visited the area in February and described the lake
as a "fabulous resource" for the state. "There really is a
necessity to find a way to stabilize the lake," he told an audience
of about 150 in Yerington.
Babbitt has since put
together a team of representatives from several federal agencies,
including the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian
Affairs and the Fish and Wildlife Service. It will look at ways to
get water into Walker Lake, but it will also take on the
controversy over a deteriorating dam on the Walker River Paiute
Weber Dam has blocked fish migration
to the lake for more than half a century. Now, with the dam in
disrepair and the Lahontan cutthroat trout listed as threatened
under the Endangered Species Act, some environmentalists and agency
staffers would like to see the dam fitted with a fish ladder.
Others want the dam removed.
himself on being a dam-buster, but so far he's refused to take a
verbal sledgehammer to Weber Dam. He says he is committed to
repairing the dam and leaving it in place, with or without a
ladder. The tribe agrees the dam must stay
"Our main concern is with safety," says the
tribe's Cassidy Williams. "The dam sits on an earthquake fault, it
does leak, and our community is directly below the dam." Williams
says that while the tribe would support the addition of a fish
ladder to the dam, the Bureau of Indian Affairs will not fund
"enhancements," including fish ladders, for dams on tribal
Babbitt's advocacy has made Walker Lake the
top priority of the Nevada office of the Bureau of Land Management,
yet Singlaub says it may be quite a while before the agency is able
to purchase water rights along the river. The federal team is
working on an environmental impact statement for the proposed
purchases, and Singlaub estimates it could cost as much as $45
million to get the 45,000 acre-feet of water needed each year to
stabilize the lake.
Funding could become
available from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund or from
the sale of public lands authorized by the 1998 Southern Nevada
Public Lands Management Act. The working group is trying hard to
raise money locally, but the water is much too pricey for a place
like Hawthorne. And while the group's political support is deep,
it's not broad; outside its hometown, it has far more enemies than
friends. Even with Reid and Babbitt on its side, the working group
is still waiting for a ripple
Looking for a
The lake's supporters say even a small water
right would help their fight to change the court decree. "It would
give us a voice," says Chris Drake.
But this is
the West and the Great Basin, where no one gives up water rights
easily. Federal attempts to buy rights will be angrily
"The tribe feels very strongly about
preserving and enhancing the fishery," says Cassidy Williams. "The
tribe's been here for thousands of years, and we've sustained
ourselves with the Lahontan cutthroat trout from the lake. But
people's livelihoods upstream depend on this water."
"The tribe wants more water, Walker Lake wants
more water, and there's only so much water to go around," says the
irrigation district's Leo Havener. He says the agencies should fund
conservation measures before trying to reduce the water that goes
to farmers. "The one thing that no one wants to talk about is that
there may not be a fix," he says.
Lake advocates) spent one drought season here with a farmer, they'd
have a better understanding of why farmers don't want to just give
their water away," says Havener. "(Getting water into the lake is)
just going to be a long process. I mean, you're talking water. It's
not going to happen overnight."
supporters tend to sigh and say they know all too well what they're
up against. While they grind away at legal and political solutions,
some are also organizing events to draw more people to the lake,
like the first annual Walker Lake arts festival, slated to take
place in early October. An annual loon festival is in its sixth
year, and each spring, hundreds of birdwatchers come to watch
thousands of loons take a rest stop at the lake on their way
"Someday, we can work on buying water
rights," says Marlene Bunch, a Walker Lake Working Group member.
"Right now, public sentiment is all we have."
"(The festivals) may have the most impact on
people's awareness of the lake," says Rose Strickland. "We just
don't want to put all our eggs in the traditional conservation
The only drawback of the recent wet
weather, says Sevon, is that these events may not have the impact
intended by their organizers. "When we now have the best fishing
we've had in 20 years," he says, "it makes it kind of difficult to
promote the plight of Walker Lake."
Havener says, there may not be a fix in this crowded struggle for
water. Still, the Mono Lake Committee's 16-year fight for water is
an inspiration for Walker Lake activists. Mono Lake was once a
forgotten place, they say, and maybe times will change in Nevada,
too. Maybe there's hope for the lake - and for
"It could be a week, it could be a
month, it could be a year," says Glenn Bunch, a member of the
Walker Lake Working Group, who heads Mineral County's search and
rescue team. "Sometime, there's going to be a knock on the back
door, and there will be a million people standing there saying,
"You're doing what to that lake?" "
"I think the
stars are finally aligning," says the BLM's John Singlaub. "In the
last four years, the whole dialogue has changed. Instead of "Why
should we save the lake?" people are saying, "How can we save the
Michelle Nijhuis is
an HCN associate editor.
can contact ...
* Lou Thompson, Walker Lake
Working Group, 775/945-7782;
* John Singlaub,
Bureau of Land Management, 775/885-6000;
Drake or Mike Sevon, Nevada Division of Wildlife,
* Leo Havener, Walker River
Irrigation District, 775/463-3523;
Williams, Walker River Paiute Tribe, 775/773-2002.