The Carson River watershed is in hot water.
That’s what happens when the Sierra Nevada snowpack that normally feeds the system is way below normal — just 7 percent of average this year with peak spring runoff finished two months early.
“The water is low and slow and warm,” said Duane Petite, Carson River project director, The Nature Conservancy.
Petite spoke at the conservancy’s 805-acre River Fork Ranch near Genoa, one of the stops on a two-day tour of the Carson River watershed hosted by the Carson Water Subconservancy District.
Petite said the abnormally tepid water creates its own set of problems on top of the water scarcity that characterizes drought.
“Pollution can be chemicals and pollution can be temperature,” Petite said. “The old saying is the solution to pollution is dilution.”
It affects wildlife, creating an inhospitable environment for native animals and a welcoming one for invasive species.
Instead of trout, said Petite, the waterways become home to carp. Leeches can replace dragonflies. And algae can thrive on still water, cutting off oxygen where other species live and breed.
Water quality can become an issue, which is the main concern of J.B. Lekumberry, owner of Ranch One, a 300-acre ranch adjacent to the conservancy site, where he grows hay and winters his cattle. He also leases 400 acres from The Nature Conservancy to run his cattle on River Fork Ranch.
Lekumberry said the recent precipitation means he’ll get all the hay he needs for his self-sustaining operation, consisting of 100 mother cows and 40 to 60 steers he raises for market. The ranch sells its grass-fed beef at the Trimmer Outpost in Genoa, located in the childhood home of Lekumberry’s wife Lisa.
“We’ve been fortunate with the rains,” Lekumberry said. “But what I’m worried about is water quality. The water is warm.”
Lekumberry says parasites grow in the hot water, which means he may need to vaccinate his cows against them.
The Nature Conservancy monitors water quality, said Petite, and often uses the testing as a teaching tool, involving local students in the process.
“We teach them water quality matters for all life, for stock, for wildlife, for humans,” Petite said.
On the tour, John Cobourn, water resource specialist, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, talked about the importance of floodplains.
“The Carson River watershed has set a goal to protect as much floodplain as possible,” said Cobourn.
To date, Carson, Douglas and Lyon counties have protected 31 percent of their floodplains, or about 12,450 acres, according to a report written by Coburn and Steven Lewis, extension educator.
Brenda Hunt, watershed program manager at the subconservancy, said floodplain management is a hard sell to the public.
“We talk about this all the time in terms of outreach,” Hunt said. “It’s not a sexy topic or an easy one to talk about. You have to go through a lot of steps to make people understand.”
One way to make it an issue people will care enough to learn about, said Cobourn, is to bring it to the ballot box, as Carson City did in 1996, when it passed its Quality of Life Initiative to fund parks and open spaces.
The Tuesday tour also included stops in Hope and Diamond valleys, Danberg Ranch, and Fuji Park, where Robb Fellows, chief stormwater engineer and senior project manager, Carson City Public Works, talked about Clear Creek and Baily Pond.
The manmade fishing pond was designed with water quality in mind, said Fellows. A detention basin, for example, between the pond and U.S. Highway 395 catches run off from the road before it can reach the pond.
The pond is fed by groundwater, said Fellows, but allows Clear Creek water into it. All the water in the park is filtered through multiple small basins.
“That cleans the water before it goes back to the creek,” said Fellows, which eventually meets up with the Carson River southeast of Baily Pond.
The tour continues today with stops at the Lyon County Waste Water Treatment facility, Fort Churchill, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge and Lahontan Dam.
The tour’s sponsors are Vidler Water Co., Michael Baker International, Resources Concepts Inc. and Smith’d Food & Drug Stores.