Going with the flow: watermaster’s job a struggle
Garry Stone is not in an enviable position.
With Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River Basin facing the lowest water level in seven years, coupled with a steady and often angry demand for water from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake, the U.S. District Court Federal Water Master sits between a river rock and a hard place.
As a federal watermaster, Stone is responsible for the water storage facilities of the Truckee River Basin, including Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake and the other reservoirs in the area as well as the Carson River Basin. But that doesn’t simply entail opening a dam gate when he feels like it.
The main charge of Stone and his office of nine, as decreed by the U.S. District Court in Reno, is to maintain the “Floriston Rate,” the flow of water measured at the Farad Gaging Station at the California/Nevada state line that varies from season to season. It is this rate – 500 cubic feet per second from March 1 to Sept. 30 and 400 cfs between October and February, depending on the lake level – that provides enough water to the Truckee Meadows, including the cities of Reno, Sparks and outlying areas. It also brings water to farmers and ranchers and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Tribe and maintains the river’s ecosystem and the habitat of the various fisheries.
Stone is not mandated to maintain any flow for the Truckee River or any of the other waters’ recreationalists, such as anglers and boaters, a point that often confuses and frustrates those looking to cool off or fish the waters. But the Floriston Rate has been in effect since 1908, and unless there are modifications made to the Truckee River Operating Agreement, these specific rates will not change – except in drought years.
Only one of a handful of federal watermasters in the United States, Stone is the fourth watermaster for the Truckee River Basin since the office was organized in 1926. Appointed for life by a federal judge, he has been in his position since September 1984 when the previous watermaster, Claude Dukes, died, after spending 17 previous years as chief deputy on the Carson River, which is also under the jurisdiction of the watermaster. In total, Stone, who has an engineering background, has been working with water since 1958 when he went to work in the Lovelock irrigation district.
In conjunction with the Bureau of Reclamation and as a result of a 1944 decree, Stone controls the release of water from Lake Tahoe and Boca Reservoir, along with other reservoirs such as Prosser and Stampede (built after 1944), to obtain the Floriston Rate. He tries to blend the release of these reservoirs, along with natural flow, such as snowmelt, natural springs and rain. If he has the natural resources, then Stone doesn’t have to release as much water from Tahoe or Boca.
“We release water for two purposes,” Stone, 64, said. “To maintain the Floriston Rate and to prohibit water from going over 6,229.1 feet.”
The 6,229.1 feet figure is the maximum storage level of Lake Tahoe. The watermaster is mandated to fill the lake to this level when water is available.
“This is a very good year to demonstrate why. (The 6.1 feet on top of the natural rim of 6,223 feet) carries us through (up to) three dry years,” he said.
Stone’s position was created to mitigate water disputes between California and Nevada and different users within each state. Although 75 percent of the Truckee River Basin lies within Nevada, most of the precipitation and almost all of the storage is in California. The agreement, though challenged over the years, sets forth the operations of Lake Tahoe, Stone said.
“It states how we can store, where we can store and when we can release water at Tahoe and at Boca,” he said.
The Floriston Rate was agreed upon in 1908 by four main groups: the U.S. government, the Truckee Carson Irrigation District, the Washoe County Water Conservation District and what is now the Sierra Pacific Power Company, along with other ranchers.
Presently, Stone’s office has the advantage of a monthly forecast to help determine how they need to store water. But, it can still take some guesswork as to how the weather will impact lake level.
“These are things Mother Nature has control over,” Stone said.
But there is a human who has control over the release of water. That person is the damtender, who checks the lake level, and other readings, 365 days a year and opens or closes any of the 17 vertical gates at the Lake Tahoe Dam in Tahoe City. John Sutter holds that position currently, and has been doing so for 11 years. He is on call to make reservoir changes whenever necessary.
The gauges, or gates, are all operated electrically, as they are at Boca, Stampede and Prosser reservoirs. The flow of the river is gauged at seven different stations as the river takes its 105-mile course to Pyramid Lake.
A real estate broker by profession, Sutter, 52, spends a half hour or so each morning checking three different stations around the lake, recording the lake level, water flow and a weather station, then he reports to the watermaster’s office. He also measures the amount of evaporation off the lake.
“Warm wind is the biggest evaporator,” Sutter said, which is just another variable Stone has to take into account.
“I wouldn’t want their job,” Sutter said of the watermaster. “They’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”
But, on a beautiful Monday morning under a flawless sky, Sutter was happy to be doing his job.
“The best part of the job is coming out early with a cup of coffee to see what the lake is doing,” he said.
Stone doesn’t have that luxury from his office in Reno. But he doesn’t need to be at Tahoe to know the lake level is dropping. While the lake is still 5 feet above the lowest recorded point ever – 6,220.26 on Nov. 30, 1992 – the lake hasn’t been this low since June 5, 1994, when it was at 6,225.47.
Stone expects the lake to drop to an elevation 8 inches above the natural rim by November.
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