A ravaged river gets a new life

  • The McCarran Ranch near Reno

    JIM STIMSON PHOTO, THE NATURE CONSERVANCY
  Twenty miles east of Reno on the McCarran Ranch, downstream from the famed Mustang Ranch brothel, there’s a 75-foot wide, meandering — and bone-dry — riverbed. Less than 200 feet away, the Truckee River flows within a man-made channel twice as wide, in a relatively straight line.

During the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers displaced the Truckee from its natural channel, then straightened and widened the river to prevent floods. But the “channelized” river carved down into the floodplain. It made lousy fish habitat, and the lack of regular spring floods caused the demise of cottonwood trees, which rely on high waters to germinate their seeds. Not that the river never flooded; a 1997 torrent killed 15 people, cost $700 million and closed Reno casinos, casting doubt on the success of the Corps’ mission.

Now, the Truckee may be set for a turnaround. The Nature Conservancy has stepped in with a plan to use McCarran Ranch — which it bought last September for $300,000 — as a river restoration pilot project. The Conservancy plans to reintroduce natural meanders to five miles of the river, reconnect the river with the wider floodplain, and plant cottonwoods and willows. The Army Corps will contribute $5 million to the $7 million cost.

“One of the great things about this project,” says the Conservancy’s Michael Cameron, “is the convergence of multiple public interests.” He’s referring to the improvement of water quality, the attenuation of flood flows and the re-creation of trout habitat.

Work will begin this summer, and could continue onto parcels adjacent to McCarran Ranch. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management owns two miles of river downstream from the ranch, and the agency obtained the Mustang Ranch in February, adding two miles of river upstream of McCarran. Previous cooperative efforts laid the groundwork for the restoration. A 1996 water quality agreement between Reno and Sparks, Washoe County and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe provided for extra flows during the dry summer months in order to help the beleaguered cui-ui sucker fish of Pyramid Lake.

John Jackson, the tribe’s Director of Water Resources, says, “We’re trying to balance the destruction done by Derby (Dam),” which diverts half of the Truckee’s flow and restricts fish passage. A new fishway at the dam will re-open migration and spawning runs for the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lisa Heki says the new Derby Dam fish passage, the altered flow releases and the channel restoration could transform the Truckee back into a natural river system within 10 years.