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.

Getting here has been a tortuous, decades-long process. A lawsuit, mediation to settle the lawsuit, grassroots campaigns, as well as federal and state initiatives all failed. Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, now majority leader, took the legislative lead, and in 2002, at his behest, Congress created the Desert Terminal Lakes Program, a $200 million effort later amended to focus on Walker and two other Nevada lakes. In 2005, Congress allocated $70 million of the original $200 million to the University of Nevada, Reno and the Desert Research Institute, an arm of the state's higher education system, to buy water rights and do related research.

UNR and DRI conducted studies and negotiated with some area farmers, but they were unable to conclude any water rights deals. Some locals say the organizations failed to build trust or to allay the suspicions many farmers and ranchers have of government-sponsored environmental initiatives.

Last year, Congress turned the program over to NFWF, which has received about $206 million (about $118 million of which came from the original Desert Terminal Lakes Program). Bringing in NFWF, which has been involved in tricky water-rights acquisitions in the Columbia River Basin, broke the logjam. "They've been a godsend," Bunch says.

Even less optimistic observers agree that NFWF appears to know what it's doing. Joy Giffin had been working on river restoration in the Walker Basin for several years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when she joined NFWF in November 2009 and became assistant director of the Walker Basin Restoration Program. She realized that attempts to buy water rights would have to address local fears that upstream agriculture would be sacrificed for the sake of the lake. "One of the biggest concerns previously was that we were just going in and drying up lands in Mason and Smith Valley (the basin's two main agricultural areas)," she says.

The foundation created local stewardship councils to oversee management of lands taken out of production. Those councils will devise strategies -- including the reintroduction of native plants -- to ensure that former farmlands don't become dusty weed lots. NFWF has also worked with the irrigation district, the conservation districts, local community leaders and individuals on a range of issues, including ways to reduce irrigation waste and removing water-sapping invasive plants from riparian areas. "There's still plenty of issues and concerns out there," Giffin says, "but the conversations have been more honest."

Honest conversations require admitting upfront that restoring the lake and the basin will have broad consequences. According to the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Geological Survey, the lake's salt content must be cut by between a third and a half for the trout and chub to recover. That means the lake volume, about 1.9 million acre-feet today, will have to increase by at least 700,000 and possibly as much as 2 million acre-feet. And once replenished, the lake will need an additional 26,000 to 53,000 acre-feet annually. For perspective, consider that the water rights NFWF has purchased so far are expected to yield roughly 6,500 acre-feet of additional river flow per year -- from an eighth to a quarter of what's needed. If all of the additional water needed were to come solely from taking irrigated land out of production, as much as one-third of the cropland in the region's main valleys might go dry, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

No one involved with the restoration envisions drying up that much farmland, but that doesn't assuage the fears of some farmers and ranchers. Fred Fulstone's family came here in 1856, and for generations has irrigated about 1,500 acres -- mostly hay -- and raised great flocks of sheep. His father was an early board member of the Walker River Irrigation District who worked hard to develop the complex irrigation system. The idea of stripping water off the land in a desert makes no sense to Fulstone. "This water deal's pretty bad, what they're trying," he says. "It'll close up the whole valley here."

But recently, more people have come to see that the situation needn't be a zero-sum game pitting the lake against irrigators. Farmer Bryan Masini, whose family also owns a motel and casino in Yerington, was the first to sell water rights to NFWF. He says he decided he could work with the foundation because they were committed to working with farmers.

"NFWF just kept at it. Wherever the farmers moved, NFWF said, 'Fine, let's try it,' " Masini says. At the urging of local irrigators, NFWF endorsed a $25 million grant to the Walker River Irrigation District to create a program that would allow irrigators to lease, rather than sell, some of their water rights to NFWF for a specific period of time. An offshoot of that program, for which $2 million was allocated, pays farmers to leave excess water in the river in exceptionally wet years. That alone could generate as much as an additional 50,000 acre-feet of water this year.

Unfortunately, simply acquiring water rights doesn't guarantee the lake's level will continue to rise; authorities have to agree that the water can remain in the river. The Nevada state engineer and a federal judge must approve the transfer, and NFWF is just beginning the process, even as it continues to seek additional acquisitions.

David Yardas, director of NFWF's Walker Basin Restoration Program, believes they will eventually succeed in significantly boosting river flows to the lake, but he's cautious about predicting the lake's salvation. Even if sufficient flows eventually resurrect Walker Lake, there's a lot of work to be done to restore the river basin that feeds the lake. Various federal and state agencies will have to plan and carry out projects to protect upstream riparian areas and manage stream-bank vegetation. The point, Yardas says, is that restoration is an evolutionary process: "Nothing in water happens fast. It's taken 150 years to mess it up, so it's going to take some time to recalibrate."

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