The ups and downs of the Truckee River |

The ups and downs of the Truckee River

Jason Kelley/Sierra SunA rafter helps clean up the Truckee River over the Fourth of July weekend by picking up empty beverage cans.

The Truckee River was looking a bit abused in the wake of the Fourth of July weekend with plastic bags, beer bottles and other jetsam littering its banks and bottom.

But now, just as the mess has been cleared, the joy rides have come to a screeching halt because of low water levels. Employees of local raft companies say they’re at their wit’s end with the water flows, while the water master contends that his hands are tied.

It’s a predicament that’s got some residents and fun-seekers pondering the river’s fate this season.

Up one day and down the next, water levels on the Truckee River have been in flux since the rafting season began.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Tracey Murphy, manager for Truckee River Raft Co. in Tahoe City. “It’s hard to run a business like this.”

Since the rafting season started, the river has been closed to floaters for a total of nearly two weeks, including two weekends that likely cost float raft outfitters tens of thousands of dollars, Murphy said.

“We’re hoping to open again by the end of the week, but there are no guarantees,” she said.

There are only three reasons that water can be legally released from Lake Tahoe, said Federal Watermaster Chad Blanchard, and none of those reasons are proving themselves right now.

Water can only be released from Lake Tahoe to either stop the lake from topping its upper limit, to maintain force and rate, or to maintain a summer flow of 70 cubic feet per second, Blanchard said.

“It’s a federal court decree. There is no leniency and we have to operate the way we have to operate. It’s not popular, but it’s the rules,” Blanchard said. “It’s not enough to raft but it’s enough to keep the fisheries alive, and that’s the deal.”

As far as forecasting a reopening of the river, it’s hard for even the water master to say.

“The lake is dropping amazingly slow. There is so much high snow and the ground is so saturated,” Blanchard said. “I couldn’t venture a guess as to when another release is going to happen.”

Low river levels have also served to expose the damage left behind by a hot holiday weekend.

The raft companies do what they can to repair the wake of destruction left by private weekend boaters, but collecting thousands of cans and hoards of rubber floaties is a monumental task.

“It’s getting a lot worse,” said Richard Courcier, co-owner of Truckee River Rafting, one of the two local outfitters that is partially responsible for maintaining the river’s cleanliness.

Cleaning up the river is a never-ending task, and one Truckee man has literally devoted his life to keeping the river beautiful, but even he cant do it alone.

Rick Cullen has lived on and around the North Shore for more than 40 years, and he has been cleaning the river for just as long. It started when he was a child, collecting lost fishing lures in coffee tins with his buddies. He would also grab an occasional soda can, maybe some tangled fishing line, and throw it into the boat.

But over the years, he said, the amount of waste has just kept growing and growing. So much so that cleaning up the river is now his full-time job and he’s bring in thousands of dollars a summer from recycling his findings.

“It’s something I love to do; I’m passionate about keeping that river clean,” Cullen said. “If I decided to quit tomorrow, that river would look like you know what.”

He’s likely right. Both Truckee River Rafting and Truckee River Raft Co. have hired Cullen as their garbage guru, and occasionally have their employees pitch in too, but as far as resources and man power goes, there’s not much backing him.

“That river should be everybody’s baby, but there are too many white gloves out there,” Cullen said.

In less than two weeks after the holiday weekend, the Truckee River is looking much better. During the four-day sun-fest refuse trucks hauled away three full loads of garbage each day from the river area, and raft company employees are continuing to aid Cullen in his quest for cleanliness.

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