Troubled Oasis

  • Walker Lake in Nevada

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Boat ramp at Nevada State Beach on Walker Lake

    Dennis Ghiglieri photo
  • White pelicans on Walker Lake

    Bob Goodman photo
  • Mike Sevon of the Nevada Division of Wildlife

    photo courtesy Mike Sevon
  • Leo Havener of Walker River Irrigation District

    Michelle Nijhuis photo
  • Bruce Babbitt and Walker River Paiutes want Weber Dam to stay put

    Michelle Nijhuis
  • Lou Thompson of Walker Lake Working Group

    Michelle Nijhuis photo

Note: two sidebar articles accompany this feature story: "Speaking from experience" and "Agency cheerleader."

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 Tonopah.

"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 two-lane highway."

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 shore.

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 plummeted.

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 forgotten.

"Nevada's Mono Lake"

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 country.

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 years.

"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.

One of 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."

Trout 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 supply.

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 lakeshore.

"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."

The 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 up.

A water puzzle

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 rights?

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 lake.

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 spare.

"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."

So things 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.

Praying for rain

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 Lake.

"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." "

One of 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 remembers.

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.

"There are people upstream whose pocket change is greater than the whole budget of Mineral County," says Thompson.

Lyon 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 level.

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 showing.

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.

"Whenever we 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.

The high-level 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."

Not yet quitting time

"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 shore.

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.

County officials and lake supporters "wanted to have a seat at the table on behalf of Walker Lake," says Thompson.

The 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 Reservation.

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.

Babbitt prides 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 put.

"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 land.

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 effect.

Looking for a fix

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 opposed.

"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.

"If (Walker 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."

Walker Lake 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 north.

"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 baskets."

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."

As Leo 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 Hawthorne.

"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 lake?" "

Michelle Nijhuis is an HCN associate editor.

You can contact ...
* Lou Thompson, Walker Lake Working Group, 775/945-7782;
* John Singlaub, Bureau of Land Management, 775/885-6000;
* Chris Drake or Mike Sevon, Nevada Division of Wildlife, 775/423-3171;
* Leo Havener, Walker River Irrigation District, 775/463-3523;
* Cassidy Williams, Walker River Paiute Tribe, 775/773-2002.

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