RENO " On the wind-swept desert of Northern Nevada, spring in one tiny town has been welcomed for years with a festival to a celebrated group of visitors " migrating loons. Perilously clumsy on land but graceful and sleek in water, the large birds with a haunting call used to descend on Walker Lake by the hundreds to gorge on a fishy feast of small tui chub before continuing their journey to who knows where.
Not this year, and the reason is Walker Lake itself. Its water quality and levels have declined and along with them, the rich bounty of small fish that attracted the loons.
The result: Hawthorne's Loon Festival, held each year in late April, was canceled, replaced by a day to bring awareness to Walker Lake's teetering ecosystem and ongoing, multimillion dollar and multifaceted efforts to save it from a salty demise.
Walker Lake, a remnant of ancient Lake Lahonton, is fed exclusively by the Walker River and melting snow in California's eastern Sierra.
Since the early 1880s, Walker Lake's water level has plunged about 145 feet, largely because of upstream agricultural use. Each year water also is lost through evaporation under the scorching summer sun.
As water levels drop, so does the lake's life-supporting riches.
Walker Lake reached an all-time documented elevation low of 3,930 feet above sea level last year, said Kim Tisdale, a fisheries supervisor with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. As a consequence, impurities, or total dissolved solids, reached an all-time high, 16,775 milligrams per liter " a lethal level for young fish.
So far, larger adult fish, including threatened native Lahontan cutthroat trout raised in hatcheries and acclimated slowly to Walker Lake's water conditions, have managed to survive.
Not so for eggs or smaller fish that the loons feed on.
In 2002, Congress passed a law sponsored by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid to provide $200 million to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation "to provide water to at-risk natural desert terminal lakes."
That launched the Desert Terminal Lakes Program. Another $175 million was appropriated last year.
In 2005, $70 million was designated for the Walker Basin Project, a comprehensive scientific and economic program to study the river basin and water use. It also set aside money to buy water rights from willing sellers to get more water to the lake.
The studies are being coordinated and conducted by the Desert Research Institute and University of Nevada, Reno.
Scientists have been studying not only how water moves within the basin, but the viability and economics of planting less water-gulping upstream crops. The goal is to have a healthy river and ecosystem, but not at the expense of upstream users and rural communities.
"This is a huge undertaking," said Daniel Klaich, vice chancellor at the Nevada System of Higher Education who is overseeing the program. "If you withdraw water from agriculture, you want to do it in such a way as you don't create a dust bowl."
Klaich said the program has received about a half-dozen offers from holders of water rights. But in the arid West, not all water rights are created equal. Older rights are at the top of the pecking order when it comes to disbursement. And not all may benefit Walker Lake.
"I could buy water, and it would never make it to the lake," Klaich said, explaining that water rights most desirable would be those nearer to the lake, as opposed to far upstream.
Researchers plan to release details of their studies in June to a stakeholders group that includes agricultural users, the Walker River Paiute Tribe, residents, and various local, state and federal officials.
"This is something that is the lifeblood for the people in this valley who have been there generations and generations," Klaich said. "They have to be involved."