Re-watering Nevada's dying Walker Lake

  • A yellow scum lines the shore of a dying Walker Lake, where Lahontan cutthroat trout once thrived. In the distance lie rocks with mineralization from the lake's high salt concentrations, exposed because of the ever-receding shoreline.

    Gordon Gregory
  • Joy Giffin, with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, is working toward buying water rights for Walker Lake without drying up too much of the basin's agricultural lands.

    Gordon Gregory
  • Glenn Bunch, who has spent most of his life trying to restore Walker Lake, is finally optimistic that it can be saved.

    Gordon Gregory

Nevada is the nation's driest state, and Mineral County is as parched as any place in it. Past the Sierra Nevada's rain shadow, it's sagebrush and alkali dust, sun-bleached skies free of clouds. So as a boy, Glenn Bunch, who grew up in Hawthorne, the county seat, spent as much time as he could at Walker Lake -- the only body of water around. Later on, he took his three kids there to camp, fish and water-ski. But over his 64 years, Bunch has watched Walker Lake become increasingly sick. Today, the lake is on the verge of ecological collapse.

More than a century of upriver irrigation has reduced it to just 20 percent of its original volume. The fish, including the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, are essentially gone. The shoreline has receded far beyond most of the boat ramps. Once about 27 miles long, the lake now stretches less than 15 miles, and is surrounded by thousands of acres of barren wasteland where the shoreline has retreated.

"When the wind blows, the dust gets so bad in the community ... you can't hardly breathe," says Bunch. "It's a wall of tan coming toward the town as high as you can see, coming from the lake. We didn't used to have that."

Bunch has spent most of his adult life trying to restore the lake. Past efforts have failed, but today, he is hopeful, buoyed by the success of recent attempts to buy water rights and land from upstream irrigators. The $22 million in federal funds expended so far is part of more than $200 million Congress allocated to restore the lake and the river basin that sustains it. The money and purchases are being handled by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF, pronounced "nifwif"), formed by Congress in 1984, a nonprofit organization with experience in acquiring water rights and working with fiercely competing interests. It is now on the cusp of closing more deals with other local irrigators. NFWF's goals are ambitious: Restore the lake as a functioning fishery and improve the Walker River Basin's ecological health while doing minimal damage to upstream agricultural interests.

Legal hurdles remain, and the water represented by the acquisitions is modest compared to the lake's needs, but the transactions are a watershed event. "There's a lot of movement out there today," says Bunch, head of the Walker Lake Working Group, an ad hoc collection of stakeholders and officials formed in 1992 to find ways to increase water flows to the lake. "There's (NFWF) standing here with money ready to buy land and water (for the lake), and some (farmers) are selling. ... I'm very optimistic."

Walker Lake, some 90 miles southeast of Reno, is a remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan, which covered much of northwestern Nevada until it dried up some 9,000 years ago. Fed by inflows but lacking surface outlets, Walker Lake is one of only three terminal lakes in North America to support a freshwater fishery. Long before settlers began farming and ranching in the Walker Basin in the late 1800s, Paiute Indians thrived on the lake's huge, abundant Lahontan cutthroat. The first upstream irrigation diversion was installed on the Walker River in 1890. By the 1930s, nearly 100,000 acres of desert were irrigated. So much water is now taken from the river that it often runs dry before it reaches the lake.

Irrigation brought glorious benefits to the upstream communities, where onions, potatoes, seed garlic, alfalfa and other crops today can generate in excess of $50 million a year. But because Walker is a terminal lake, all the minerals that enter it remain. And as it shrinks, those dissolved minerals, particularly salts, concentrate. Salt levels have exploded eight-fold since irrigation started. And although Lahontan cutthroat evolved to tolerate high salt levels, Walker Lake has become effectively toxic even to them, as well as to their primary food source, a small minnow-like fish called tui chub.

Nevada state fisheries biologist Karie Wright says no trout have been caught in the lake since 2009, though some may still survive. Tui chub can still be found, though their numbers have declined drastically. The collapse of the tui chub population has caused other ripples in the ecosystem. The fish were a prime food for migrating waterfowl, which for thousands of years descended here in great waves to rest and eat. Hawthorne once celebrated an annual spring Loon Festival. By 2009, so few of the black-and-white birds were returning that it abandoned the event. Instead, the Walker Lake Working Group now holds a Walker Lake Education Day to inform people about the lake's plight. But despite its dire condition, biologist Wright also believes the lake is now finally on the path to a comeback.

Frances Tilgner
Frances Tilgner Subscriber
Aug 17, 2011 08:50 AM
You may have already done this but I recommend checking with the Mono Lake Committee in Lee Vining, CA for some input to your situation. They had many issues in trying to get the lake level raised to support the lakes habitat over the years..Richard
sid Beckwith
sid Beckwith
Aug 23, 2011 10:54 AM

Dear HCN,
    The article regarding Walker Lake was very illuminating. Is this correct: the American Taxpayers contributed 300 million dollars to get 1/8th to 1/4 of the water needed for the lake's revitilization? 300 Million dollars? Did anyone do a cost/benefit analysis for this project? No wonder the so-called Tea Party is gaining adherents and environmental groups are losing their clout.
Sid Beckwith
Jan Stabile
Jan Stabile Subscriber
Aug 23, 2011 02:47 PM
Nevada’s forgotten lake:

Nevada has two large bodies of natural water within its borders, Pyramid Lake and Walker Lake. The state of Nevada has made the choice to sacrifice Walker Lake by over allocating the upstream water rights to a few upstream communities. As the article stated irrigation brought glorious benefits from onions, potatoes, alfalfa and garlic. All water intensive crops, in the nation’s driest state. Sid Beckwith is rightfully concerned by the use of taxpayers’ money with the contribution of 300 Million. Why should the tax payer have to pay for the monster that the state created? Why should any of the users be compensated they have used this resource to the fullest and reaped the rewards. Agriculture in the Nevada is the most sacred form of welfare. I think the Tea Party would call this Socialism. Did anyone do a cost/benefit analysis for agriculture in Nevada without the federally funded dams, free water rights, and the subsidized utility rates for pumping the water, the token fees for grazing cattle? I am sure the list goes on. This is when you say, we need the American farmer. If it ever comes to the time when we have to depend on Nevada for agriculture production I will be the first to sacrifice Walker Lake.

Jan Stabile
David Huebner
David Huebner
Jul 24, 2012 04:36 PM
To clarify... Congress approved 200 million and it says in the beginning of the article that 22 million has been used to gain this 1/8th to 1/4 improvement in acre feet of water. Still a lot of money, but 22 million is quite different from 300 million (that number is not mentioned anywhere in the article). Like or it not, agriculture is a way of life in these desert basins in Nevada, and I'll like to see you say some of these words face to face with a family farmer living there. Water intensive crops should not be grown there, and I believe that is part of what they're working on in order to maintain people's way of life while using less water. It's true that agriculture will likely have to be diminished in order to fully regain water flows to the lake enough to reestablish a Lahontan fishery, but they need not be abondoned entirely. Walker Lake is an ancient lake that supports diverse ecology, to let it die would be a shame. I think it's a great opportunity for people to show that they can work together with the federal government to restore a lake while maintaining their agricultural lifestyle.