Walker Lake Take Action

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Walker lake and Mount Grant from northwest shoreWalker Lake:  Nevada's International Treasure


Walker Lake
is a familiar sight to travelers on Highway 95 between Reno and Las Vegas.  Its blue desert waters start on the east slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California, flow through farming communities at Bridgeport and Antelope Valley and then through Smith and Mason Valleys in Nevada. From Wabuska, the joined East and West Forks flow through the Walker River Paiute Reservation and then into Walker Lake, just north of Hawthorne, Nevada.  The best-kept secret of Walker Lake is that it is one of only six freshwater terminal lakes in the world.
 
 
Lahontan Cutthroat Trout Walker Lake is famous for its Lahontan cutthroat trout fishery.  Recently, the original strain of lake cutthroats, believed to be extinct, was found surviving in a small creek in northeastern Nevada. These trout which grew to over 40 pounds were re-introduced to Walker Lake in hopes that they will regain their great size. Less well-known is its support of thousands of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, including biannual visits of up to 1400 common loons. Walker Lake recreational uses are the mainstay of the economy of small rural Mineral County.

 
Walker Lake has been seriously impacted by over a century of upriver agricultural diversions. It has lost over three fourths of its volume. The Lake level has fallen by 140 feet. Salt levels have increased to a point which now threaten the survival of the trout fishery and may bring about the collapse of the entire freshwater dependent lake ecosystem. Walker Lake has survived droughts and global climatic changes since the Pleistocene, but its fragile ecosystem cannot outlive upriver diversions accompanied by serious droughts. Walker Lake has no water rights and the River is overappropriated by 140%. Except for a little water from a few creeks and springs on the slopes of Mt. Grant, its only freshwater comes from the river during floods, during high flows when all agricultural rights are satisfied, or at times when Walker River flows cannot be totally diverted.
 
Previous crises over the threat of rising salt levels were resolved by exceptionally heavy winter snows and freshening spring floods down the river. Currently, Nevada and the Eastern Sierra are in the second year of a drought, with 2001 precipitation levels lower than in every year since weather records have been kept. Salt levels will exceed 13,000 ppm at the end of the 2002 summer season. The State of Nevada may decide not to restock Lahontan cutthroat trout in 2003 if its traditional acclimatization program fails and fish mortality rises. The fish will live, but not reproduce or increase in size at high salt levels. When rising salt levels in the Lake become extremely high, all freshwater species will die .
 
Efforts to secure freshwater for Walker Lake began two decades ago. After the 1980's drought, the State was successful in obtaining the rights to some floodwaters for Walker Lake. State efforts on behalf of Walker Lake have been limited, since then, to studies, meetings, an aborted setting of beneficial uses and water quality standards for the Lake by the NV Division of Environmental Protection, and current interest by Mike Turnipseed, Director of the Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources, in initiating an alternate dispute resolution process on Walker River basin water issues.
 
American White Pelican
Senator Harry Reid's interest in Walker Lake resulted in federal appropriations for Lake and river basin studies, a report by the Office of Technology Assessment, and the initiation of a three-pronged environmental impact analysis by the Bureau of Land Management of acquiring water for Walker Lake, settling Indian claims on additional Walker River water, and recovering Lahontan cutthroat trout in the basin.

Mineral County voters approved a tax initiative for legal funds to save Walker Lake and the Mineral County Commission authorized the Walker Lake Working Group (WLWG) to represent county interests in saving Walker Lake. Several lawsuits have been filed, including one to intervene in the Walker River Decree court proceedings, one against the Irrigation District over the illegal use of herbicides, and ones challenging the US EPA over lack of Clean Water Act implementation and Endangered Species Act enforcement. The WLWG has purchased ten acre feet of water for Walker Lake, but not yet filed with the State Engineer or the US Court to deliver it to the Lake. It conducts an annual Loon Tour in April for the public and has sponsored the Walker Lake Arts Festival. The Group attends meetings, presents testimony, and generally represents the interests of the Lake. Its website is www.walkerlake.org.

Other involved parties include the upriver farmers, both individually and organized as the Walker River Irrigation District (WRID), the Walker River Paiute Tribe at Schurz and the Yerington Indian Colony, the State of California (CA Fish & Game), the Federal District Court and its Walker River Watermaster, Lyon County and Yerington, the US Army, the US Marines, the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Reclamation, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Justice which represents all of these varied federal interests in litigation matters. Other State agencies include UNR, DRI, the Attorney General and the State Engineer. Conservation, wildlife, and angler groups generally strongly support the acquisition of freshwater for Walker Lake.

Walker Lake's water needs have been estimated by NDOW fisheries biologists as a minimum of 135,000 to 140,000 acre feet per year, on the average. This would reduce TDS to levels at which the cutthroat trout and other Lake species would be healthy. Lake proponents support acquisition of water rights through purchase from willing sellers. Funds for water rights acquisition could be provided from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the So. NV Public Lands Management Act, private foundation funds, etc. Other ideas for water for the Lake include promoting water conservation among farmers and reserving conserved water for the lake, leasing water from farmers during drought years, federal acquisition of water rights for the Indian tribes and leasing of tribal water for the Lake. More extreme ideas include building a de-salinization plant, splitting Walker Lake into a freshwater section and a saline lake/playa through building a large levee, and buying Columbia River or Canadian water and piping it to Walker Lake.

Excellent references on Walker Lake and the Walker River Basin include: Walker River Atlas, CA Dept. of Water Resources, June 1992; PRA's publication; Water for Walker Lake, Office of Technology Assessment, August 31, 1993; draft Walker River Basin EIS, BLM Carson City Field Office, which will be released for public review in June 2002.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION: BLM contact is John Singlaub, BLM Field Office Manager at (775) 885-6000. Contact for the Walker Lake Working Group Walker Lake Working Group is President Lou Thompson in Hawthorne, NV, (775) 945-8243. Nevada Division of Wildlife contact is Fisheries Biologist, Mike Sevon, at (775) 423-3171 x226, in Fallon, NV. Loon expert is Jim Paruk, Feather River College, Quincy, CA, (530) 283-0202 x.268. Kai Anderson of Senator Reid's staff can be contacted at (202) 224-3542 in Washington, DC. For more information and to arrange a tour of Walker Lake/Walker River basin, contact Rose Strickland, Sierra Club, (775) 329-6118; Susan Lynn, Public Resource Associates, (775) 786-9955, both in Reno, NV.


Walker Lake Take Action

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