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.

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