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

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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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