This year's dry weather has reduced the Carson River to a trickle in some areas, but Lake Lahontan has still been able to do its job.
Although the lake level has dropped this year, creating a hardship for boaters and fishermen, its primary province is to provide irrigation water for area farmers.
"It's important to note that Lahontan was constructed as part of the Newlands Project," said Eric Johnson, State Parks regional manager for the Fallon district. "The needs of the recreating public come second to the needs of the farmers and a lot of people don't seem to realize that."
He said despite the drought the farmers got 100 percent of their water, but next year could be difficult with another dry winter.
"We need to get a lot of snow to get that reservoir up to where it should be next year," he said.
Lahontan Reservoir, sometimes called Lake Lahontan, is part of the Lahontan State Recreation Area on the Carson River, 18 miles west of Fallon.
Ernie Schank, president of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, said there is about 62,000 acre feet of water in the lake right now, and farmers have nothing to worry about, but that recreational users may have problems.
"Actually, it could go dry and if we had a normal year, it wouldn't fill completely up but it would fill up," he said. "With what's on the Truckee side, we would have enough for a normal year. We generally don't see it this low, at least we haven't in the last few years."
He said the federal Bureau of Reclamation, expects the water amount to be around 40,000 acre-feet at the end of irrigation, which is Nov. 15.
Lahontan has been receiving water from the Truckee River via the Truckee Canal since February.
Schank explained that the top six feet of water in Lake Tahoe is storage, and that goes down the Truckee to Reno. From there, it goes to Pyramid Lake unless diverted to Lahontan via the canal at the Derby Dam.
The level of the Lahontan Reservoir triggers whether or not water is sent down the canal.
Schank said no water was needed by the lake last year because of a wet spring, and if this winter is a normal one, there will be more than two feet on Lake Tahoe. He said the usual average rise of Lake Tahoe is 2.25 feet.
Schank said he doesn't think in terms of good winters or bad winters, just the averages.
"We bank on the average," he said. "A year ago, last year, with that heavy spring runoff, I think it put about six feet of water (on the lake), probably more than that, but that's not the norm."
He said an average year on the Carson Watershed puts 178,000 acre-feet of water into Lake Lahontan.
An acre-foot is the number of acres covered by one foot of water.
"We've had a normal irrigation season because of Lake Tahoe," he said. "If we had to rely entirely on the Carson River, we would have been out of water. That's the beauty of the two systems working together; some years we don't have to take any, other years we do."
Tough on sportsmen
For boaters and recreational users, it has been a tough year.
This summer state parks removed the docks and required boaters to launch from the shoreline; a difficult task since there is a lot of clay on Lahontan's shores, Johnson said.
Another risk to boats is rocks and tree stumps just under the water's surface.
"We're not recommending people launch their boats at all, but if they choose to, it should be a small boat," he said. "There are a lot of submerged obstacles like rocks and stumps."
He said despite the dry summer, the lake was starting to stabilize, thanks to continued flows from the Truckee River.
"Irrigation season is starting to taper down and we should start filling up again," he said. "The Truckee is still flowing but the Carson has not picked up again. There's nothing coming from the Carson."
The number of people using the lake drops off substantially this time of year, Johnson said, so effects will be limited.
He said fishing has probably improved, because the same number of fish are concentrated in a smaller area.
Though the water levels are low, Johnson said the situation was close to average, something that could change with another dry winter.
"Next year may be a very difficult year if we don't get a lot of snow," he said.
- Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-7351.