Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting."
After his short stint in Nevada Territory writing for the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise, humorist Mark Twain stated Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over. Water is indeed the most precious natural resource in the arid West, and from that perspective it should come as no surprise that water rights issues on Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River have been at the center of negotiation and controversy since pioneers first settled the region. In 1870 engineer Alexis von Schmidt had overseen construction of a small dam a short distance below the headwaters of the Truckee River (Lake Tahoes only outlet near Tahoe City). The Tahoe dam was trouble from the start. Water impounded for log fluming caused flooding along shoreline owned by politically influential lakefront property owners. The original dam was later enlarged when the Truckee River General Electric Company acquired ownership of the dam to provide a steady, year-round water source for hydroelectric power plants along the river. Based on this seemingly reliable and inexpensive energy source, entrepreneurs built processing and manufacturing plants along the Truckee River. In 1890, a well-connected attorney and soon to be Nevada congressman, Francis G. Newlands, proposed a network of reservoirs in the Sierra to serve the future development of the Silver State. According to Newlands, Tahoe afforded the cheapest reservoir space in the West. Newlands sponsored a measure through which the federal government would provide water for irrigation in arid regions throughout the West. After passage of the Reclamation Act, the Department of the Interior notified California and Nevada officials that the federal government would be assuming the right to control the water stored in Lake Tahoe behind the dam.
In 1903 the first major effort under the Reclamation Act, the Federal Newlands Reclamation Project, broke ground in western Nevada to divert Truckee River water with the goal of transforming Lahontan Valley desert into farmland. Unfortunately, the engineers who planned the Newlands Irrigation Project miscalculated and overestimated the reliability of the Truckee River water supply. Highly erratic periods of precipitation and river flows combined with limited upstream storage failed to accommodate extreme periods of drought. Angry farmers who had been lured to the project rebelled over water shortages during the growing season. To address concerns by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe located below the Derby Dam, a U.S. government treaty promised the Paiute Indians enough water to maintain their historic fishery at the mouth of the river. Despite these assurances, the Derby Dam cut water flow into Pyramid Lake by half. By 1967 Pyramid Lake had dropped 87 feet, which prevented the endangered cui-ui fish and threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout from migrating upstream to spawn. In order to better forecast and control the seasonal fluctuations at Lake Tahoe, University of Nevada professor Dr. James E. Church, developed a snow survey system that measured water content in the Tahoe Basin snowpack. A good correlation was found between the late March water equivalent in the snowpack and the spring rise in the lake. The first practical application of Churchs snow surveys enabled Tahoe dam operators to better regulate releases to prevent both flooding and waste of water, which helped to temporarily tone down the conflict between lakefront property owners, the power company, and others.
Dr. Church is credited with ending the Tahoe water war, but adequately controlling the lakes elevation is an ongoing challenge. A major obstacle to successfully managing Tahoe as a reservoir is that engineers have compressed its broad natural variations into a narrow six-foot limit. When the lakes water level falls to 6,223 feet mean sea level, it stops feeding the Truckee River. Federal law prohibits storage of water in Lake Tahoe above 6,229.1 feet, which is the limit decreed in the 1935 Truckee River Agreement. It is sheer hubris to think that in our erratic western climate, which swings between desiccating drought and heavy wet winters, Lake Tahoe can be kept in perfect equilibrium to satisfy all users. History has proven otherwise. Long-term droughts have dropped the lake well below the natural rim, rendering the reservoir useless for extended periods of time, while powerful storms and wet mantle floods (rain-on-snow) have forced the release of Tahoe water into an already swollen Truckee River and aggravated existing flood conditions. Indicative of our regions climatic volatility, 20 major floods have occurred on the Truckee River in the last 150 years.During severe drought in the 1920s and 1930s, Lake Tahoe fell below its rim eight years in a row and the Truckee River dried up. To satisfy downstream water demand, large pumps were installed near the Tahoe Dam; over several years more than 117,000 acre feet of water was sucked from the lake. Newspapers reported that Tahoe residents were intent on sabotaging the pumps. Armed confrontations were barely averted between Tahoe residents and hired hands doing the bidding of farmers in Fallon. There were plenty of skeptics when the U.S. government made its decision to convert the huge lake into a controlled reservoir with six feet of storage. Pioneers like George Peckham, who moved to Nevada in 1864, two years after the great January flood of 1862 pointed to eyewitness testimony by teamsters who were stranded near Tahoe at the time that the lake level rose to approximately 6,235 feet. And that was before a dam was in place at the outlet. Peckham stated that the natural variation of Lake Tahoe was closer to 15 feet, not six. He wrote that a margin of six feet is entirely inadequate to take care of the surplus water from the watershed of Tahoe during the flood years or furnish enough water during the dry periods.The prescient Peckham was spitting into the wind as far as the government was concerned, but a quick review of Lake Tahoe elevation data shows that he was right. A comparison of the lakes highest and lowest water levels measured over the last century reveal a range of eleven feet. The highest level on record is 6,231 feet in July 1907, with the lowest reading of 6,220 feet measured in November 1992.
As a rule Lake Tahoes elevation is kept as high as possible to offset the constant fear of drought and threat of insufficient water supplies for downstream users. Ironically, it is the same downstream users who want Tahoes water maintained at high levels in case of drought are the ones who suffer most when the Truckee River overflows its banks, such as the $600 million flood event that occurred in early January 1997. Heavy rain in December 1996 raised the lake over its maximum legal level, which forced Federal Water Master Garry Stone to open all 17 gates of the Lake Tahoe Dam and release 2,630 cubic feet per second into the raging Truckee River. Western Nevada, and especially Reno and Sparks, were inundated. The media called the 97 flood an act of God, but at the peak of the flood it is estimated that nearly 45 percent of the water flowing through downtown Reno was coming from Lake Tahoe through gates kept open by an archaic government water policy. The Water Masters duty is to administer the most recently ratified federal court decrees with regard to the Truckee River and the Carson River. The original purpose of the Tahoe dam was to store water for the agricultural industry in Fallon, not protection for fish, wildlife, property, or the environment. Under the current Truckee River Compact, Lake Tahoes operating goal is to provide as much water to the downstream users as possible without causing shoreline damage along Lake Tahoe. Flood control was not provided for under the original decree. The Water Master is required by law to release water whenever the lake exceeds the 6,229.1 maximum elevation mark regardless of hydrologic conditions downstream.An updated and more comprehensive Truckee River Operating Agreement (TROA) is under review at this time. The TROA would modify existing operations of all designated reservoirs to enhance coordination and flexibility while ensuring that existing water rights are served and flood control and safety requirements are met. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, TROA would, in part, (1) enhance conditions for the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout and endangered cui-ui in the Truckee River basin; (2) increase municipal and industrial drought protection for Truckee Meadows (Reno-Sparks metropolitan area); (3) improve Truckee River water quality downstream from Sparks, Nevada; and (4) enhance stream flows and recreational opportunities in the Truckee River Basin. The anticipated TROA is a much needed update to better management of the Lake Tahoe-Truckee River hydrologic basin, but whether it will put an end to the ongoing Tahoe water war controversy is far from clear.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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