From Carson City’s drinking water to its wastewater, from Carson River’s headwaters to the Carson desert, a bus tour this week showed why water is a bit like oil.
In a word, valuable.
The two-day “Get on the Bus” Carson River watershed tour ending Thursday demonstrated that there is too little water much of the time and too much during floods. Like a watery famine, the 184 miles of watershed becomes parched in drought years. A water feast brings a floodplain bloated with H2O. But dry is the byword now.
“You’ll see in the Carson — especially this summer — the river will go dry,” said Edwin James, manager of the Carson Water Subconservancy District, which sponsored and shepherded the touring troupe Wednesday and Thursday. Lack of water stems in part from low snowmelt runoff in the Sierra Nevada, where the river originates.
As with oil, too little water causes tension and too much can result in a flood of problems of an entirely different sort.
The too-little/too-much scenario was emphasized when James and other experts along for the ride detailed problems from flooding that periodically has inundated Carson Valley’s floodway in the Minden-Gardnerville area and in Carson City, particularly the 1997 event.
In fact, the entire trip was an alternating opportunity to look at the contrasts and capacities provided by nature and the human footprint along the river through history, today and projecting into the future.
On Wednesday, the fully loaded bus trekked to Alpine County, Calif., in the mountain range southwest of Carson City, to give riders a look at meadows restoration near the river’s headwaters.
There, Carson City Dr. Gregory Hayes, former health officer in Alpine County and a founding member of the Friends of Hope Valley, said the river meadow is recovering slowly, via restoration, from 19th-century man-made problems.
He cited clear-cutting of trees in the area, plus heavy grazing of sheep and cattle well into the 20th century. Rules slowly came into effect and altered land use in Alpine County, he said.
The tour began at Carson City’s Quill water plant on the city’s west side. There, water is treated to ensure it is drinkable. The city has the Quill plant and 32 groundwater wells for production, taking its water from both surface and groundwater sources.
Brandon Mathiesen, water-production supervisor, explained the filtration process and said Quill typically handles 2 million to 4 million gallons daily. He added that increasing capacity would be expensive. Another pair of filter tanks would cost $1.5 million just for the hardware — significantly more with software included, Mathiesen said.
He also said any need for more capacity is based on water availability rather than population growth.
On Thursday, the tour took in the city’s wastewater-treatment plant on the east side and learned about that plant’s aging capacity, which will cost millions to rectify.
The Board of Supervisors is grappling with issues regarding both water and wastewater rates. Public Works staff has come up with plans that might raise rates significantly for water and sewer service to pay for capital needs, particularly because the wastewater-treatment plant requires an upgrade.
Tour participants also heard from Parks and Recreation Director Roger Moellendorf, who gave an overview Thursday of the city’s open space along the river and in other city locations.
In part by using Question 18 Quality of Life funds, approved by city voters in the 1990s, city government has acquired 6,928 acres — 1,761 on the west side and 5,167 on the east. Many of those east-side acres are along the river.
Moellendorf said the cost was $18.2 million, or $7,667 per acre, and $11 million of that came from federal or state grants.
He said there are various purposes that include passive recreation uses, such as trails, and protection of city drinking water. He also said the Board of Supervisors has instructed city staffers to shift from land-purchasing to land-management mode.
Later Thursday, the tour moved on into Lyon and Churchill counties to the east. Among things seen were the Lahontan Reservoir Lake near Fallon, a man-made lake for recreation and agricultural purposes that this year is quite low due to a second year of dry conditions. East of Fallon, the river plays out in the desert and the Carson Sink.
James and his subconservancy staff talked of conditions ebbing and flowing with snowmelt, providing information throughout the trip about the history of drought and flooding, plus current prospects and efforts to deal with the two-sided watershed problems.
“Even in the old days, Carson River ran dry in dry years,” James said. Now, he indicated, climate change and other factors such as development in the floodplain can seem to heighten the contrast of too much/too little water in the watershed.
He said river water rights, governed in part by a historic Alpine court case decision, have river water use allocated 100 percent. He said anyone seeking a water right must purchase it from someone else now. He also said because of dry conditions, the river will go under regulation in a week or so to handle the existing water-use load.