Walker River future swirling in debate

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YERINGTON - Plans to save Walker Lake as a fresh water fishery will not work and could dry up domestic wells in the process, according to Yerington resident David Haight.

Others are worried the time to work toward resolving their concerns is running short.

Following a recent meeting with state and federal agencies, Lyon County Commissioner and Mason Valley Rancher David Fulstone said it is time to step up to the plate and play a role in the issue.

"This whole thing seems to be pushing much faster, with the federal assessment team and the Bureau of Land Management environmental impact studies moving forward," Fulstone told commissioners last week.

Fulstone said he does not want the federal government buying land in the Walker River System.

"We need to quantify in better numbers what they are asking for in water. They have thrown the trout issue into the whole thing. We are talking major changes to the whole system. There are major costs involved," he said.

John Singlaub, manager of the Carson City Bureau of Land Management office, said numbers used in state and federal plans to preserve the lake as fresh water fishery for the Lahontan Cutthroat trout are based on a 1995 U.S. Geological Survey report.

Authored by James Thomas, the report states that to reduce the dissolved-solids concentration to the desired 10,000 milligrams per liter the lake surface altitude would have to be raised to about 3,970 feet. Once raised to this level, an additional flow of about 47,000 acre feet per year more water than the long term average would be needed to maintain it.

"Looking for long term viability and based on the Thomas Report, we determined a TDS (total dissolved solids) level of 10,000 milligrams per liter would leave a buffer for sustaining a healthy level for the fish," Singlaub said.

An Aug. 4, 1999, report issued by Nevada Division of Water Planning Engineer/Hydrologist Randy Pahl states that assuming average conditions each year, if that amount were added annually beginning now it would take about 100 years to reach and maintain the desired level.

"They are equating lake level to salinity," Haight argued. "We cannot say today that at the end of 100 years if we bring the lake level up to this point the TDS will support the fish. Reaching 3,970 alone will not solve the problem. At the end of 100 years it will be worse off than it is now."

Pahl said he based his prediction on averages, but it could change if there continue to be above-average water years.

"We all know Nevada's precipitation is not known for its averages. My purpose in putting the prediction into my report was to make people realize it will take some time no matter what is done," Pahl said.

Haight, a retired electronic engineer in the defense industry, says that while the total dissolved solid ratio may temporarily decrease slightly, the volume of harmful salts will continue to rise as water is added and be too high to support the fish.

"The only solution is to remove these salts or flush the lake," Haight claims.

A Nevada Division of Wildlife report states the lake supported the cutthroat fish population in 1986 when the total dissolved solids measured 12,000 mg/L. at a lake level of 3970. At the height of the drought in 1994, total dissolved solids reached a level of 13,300 milligrams per liter, putting the freshwater Lahontan cutthroat trout at risk.

Division of Wildlife Supervising Fisheries' Biologist Mike Sevon said the lake has been coming up since the last drought.

"I can't respond to Pahl's claim (that it will take 100 years to reach the desired level), but in the past several years the lake has taken back about 15 feet of the 30 feet lost to the drought and has averaged a dissolved solid level of about 11,000 mg/L," he stated.

Considering the amount of water lost in transport due to evaporation and other causes, Haight and Fulstone say it could take at least three to four times 47,000 acre feet per year out of the Walker River water basin to get that amount to the lake.

"I have been told that ranchers are truly frightened with the prospect of losing their water," Haight said. "I have also been told that, yes, domestic wells could possibly go dry. The state water office says they will now consider the need for recharging the aquifer."

During the drought period, Haight said, the well on his five-acre parcel east of Yerington dropped 25 feet.

"We can't give up what they say they need without taking one-third of the agriculture out of production. Then, what will they do with those non-irrigated lands?" Fulstone said.

Noting it would be difficult to say just how much additional water would be needed to increase the flow to the lake by 47,000 acre feet a year, Pahl said acquiring water rights is only one of several possible solutions. Other options include conservation efforts, cloud seeding and channel improvements that could cuts losses of water to vegetation.

"There is always a concern that when you are transferring surface water it could impact private wells. As with any option, impacts will have to be evaluated," Pahl said. We have a responsibility to everyone and to the resources in the basin if we are going to be successful.

"We are a planning agency. We are trying to be helpful by providing accurate information."


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