Will there be a Truckee River rafting season this summer?
March 31, 2016
Lake Tahoe water level
As of Tuesday morning, Lake Tahoe was at 6,222.84 feet above sea level, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Its natural rim is 6,223 feet.
TAHOE CITY, Calif. — Lake Tahoe's water levels are currently about 2 inches below the lake's natural rim, but levels are expected to rise with spring snowmelt.
"Current forecasts predict we're going to get about a foot to a foot and a quarter above the natural rim — which would give us some output for a while, but evaporation will take it down very quickly," Chad Blanchard, the federal water master who oversees the distribution of water from Lake Tahoe and two area rivers, said this week.
Blanchard added that Lake Tahoe's water is doing considerably better than last year, when levels just barely made it to the lake's rim after a fourth-consecutive mild and dry winter.
The best-case scenario for increased flow of the Truckee River would involve continued precipitation through spring and thunderstorms in early summer.
Factors such as evaporation and ground water absorption play a large role in lake levels, Blanchard said, and any number of variables can make water levels extremely difficult to predict.
Blanchard uses data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the National Weather Service to figure out how much water he needs to release from the lake and several other reservoirs in order to meet supply, streamflow and flood control requirements.
SHAKY OUTLOOK FOR FLOATING
From a recreation standpoint, while many at Lake Tahoe are focused on the recent spate of wintry storms that will likely allow area ski resorts to stay open well into April, if not May, others are looking ahead to the summer and the possibility of rafting on the Truckee River.
"At this point the forecast does show us getting potentially raft-able flows for a short time, but it really depends what the weather does between now and then," Blanchard said this week.
The minimum water level required to open Tahoe reservoirs to flow into the Truckee River is below 500 cfs. This is referred to as the Floriston Rate — a long-standing federal rule that stipulates that as long as the flow is high through Floriston in the Truckee River, the U.S. District Court Water Masters Office (where Blanchard works) can't release extra water from Lake Tahoe.
Aaron Rudnick of Tahoe-Sierra Recreation, a Tahoe City-based business that employs several seasonal workers in the summer when conditions allow, echoes the uncertainty of a rafting season between Tahoe City and Alpine Meadows this summer.
"If we get it, it will most likely be a short season, and we don't know when it will be," said Rudnick.
Rudnick is hoping for the best, but wants to be realistic about the challenges an extremely short season would present, noting that two weeks of rafting may not be enough to cover the costs of opening.
Tahoe-Sierra Recreation and other Tahoe City-based rafting companies were unable to operate at all last summer, and the 2014 rafting season was cut in half due to drought conditions.
WHITE WATER RAFTING LOOKING GOOD
Forecasts are more optimistic, however, for the whitewater rafting companies operating farther down the Truckee River.
While rafting on the first section of the Truckee is completely dependent on flows out of Lake Tahoe, whitewater operators guide on a section fed by many sources, including Donner Lake and Stampede and Boca reservoirs.
"We are going to get flows," said Lorraine Hall, business manager for Tributary Whitewater Tours. "We will know a lot more in April, but we're currently looking good to operate at least through July – very possibly longer."
Tributary Water Tours was unable to guide on the Truckee River last summer, and had to stop early the year prior, though the company was able to continue operations on the nearby American River.
"This year looks a lot better," added Hall.
Those looking for up-to-date lake levels can visit the Truckee Meadows Water Authority's real-time, animated map at tmwa.com/lake_level — its information is provided by the USGS.
Updated information for the Truckee River forecast is expected following the April 1 snowpack readings. The updated Water Supply Index (WSI) forecast will be available Friday, April 8, through California's Department of Water Resources.
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