YERINGTON - Trying to meet federal Clean Water Act requirements, state environmental officials are questioning whether viable salinity standards can be set for Walker Lake.
Causing the dilemma are differences of opinion between upstream water users and those wishing to save the terminal lake as a fresh water fishery.
At the center of the controversy is whether enough additional water can be added to the lake to lower its total dissolved solid (salinity) level, allowing the survival of Lahontan cutthroat, tui chub and surrounding ecosystem, without severely impacting agricultural and domestic water users upstream.
Basing their recommendations on a 10-year period of scientific samplings, Tom Porta, chief of the Nevada Bureau of Water Quality Planning, last week presented the State Environmental Commission his division's proposed changes to Nevada law.
The proposal included recommended water temperatures, pH, dissolved oxygen, suspended solids, nitrogen, phosphates, chloride, arsenic and e.coli levels for Walker Lake and the Walker River and its tributaries.
However, it was a recommendation of 10,000 milligrams per liter of total dissolved solids that attracted the most attention. Upstream water users claim it is an unattainable goal.
Representing the Domestic Action On Wells Group, attorney William Schaeffer said "It is inevitable that it (Walker Lake) will become like the Dead Sea in Israel or like the Great Salt Lake and for the same reason: the inflowing water carries salt and there is no outflow. Under these circumstances, there is no level which the commission can set that can attain the objective. Under the law, if the objective cannot reasonably be met, then the commission has no business setting a standard."
Walker River Irrigation District attorney Gordon DePaoli said the proposed water quality standards are not consistent with the pursuit of agriculture.
"The proposed standards should be modified to allow them to be an integral part of a comprehensive watershed management approach that actively considers the relationships among climate, hydrology, ecology, land use and resource allocation and protection," he told the panel.
A 1995 US Geological Survey Office report states that it would take up to an additional 700,000 acre-feet of water into the lake and another 47,000 acre- feet per year to meet the proposed standard.
Depaoli said that, with the exception of extremely wet years, the water is not available. He suggested the commission consider adopting standards based on a sliding scale, taking into account the climatic variation in the watershed.
"A sliding scale can be protective and attainable. It is better to look at what is attainable and start from there," said Jean Balderidge of Entrix, Inc.
However, Division of Wildlife Supervising Fisheries Biologist Mike Sevon said, "It (10,000 mg/l) is a level we need to recommend. It would maintain a healthy ecosystem and fishery."
Several commission members appeared concerned the standard might be unrealistic.
"How do we go ask the agricultural community to do these things to try and reach goals that are not attainable?" asked Commissioner Paul Iverson. "If we implement these standards, what do we do tomorrow when they start taking water away they need to maintain their agricultural economy?"
Members of the Walker Lake Working Group, an organization formed to save the lake as a fresh water fishery, disputed much of the information presented by upstream interests.
"I don't agree with the testimony you heard today," said Rose Strickland. "These claims ignore droughts caused by upstream irrigation diversions. There are many kinds of drought - some are under our control and some are not.
"You are being asked to help the state comply with the Clean Water Act. No one here expects you to solve Walker Lake's problems."