While much of the state’s wetlands are dry, Churchill’s wildlife areas remain wet
Nevada’s precious few wetlands are suffering the effects of five years of drought – except for those in Churchill County.
While five of the state’s 12 wildlife management areas are completely dry and several others are far below their average, the Lahontan Valley’s two major wetlands, Carson Lake and the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, have one advantage – water rights.
Most wetlands in Nevada rely on irrigation drainage or natural water flow, but irrigation water is delivered to Carson Lake and the Stillwater refuge through the Newlands Project irrigation system.
Right now, Carson Lake’s water level is at 75 to 80 percent of capacity. And since there are ponds at the lake that land managers never fill up, it’s really near 100 percent, said Nevada Division of Wildlife biologist Kyle Neill.
The refuge was at about 60 percent capacity in early October and still receiving water deliveries from the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District.
“Everything is in pretty good shape this year,” Neill said.
Lake Lahontan in Lyon County, which is dependent on natural drainage primarily from the Carson River, isn’t faring as well.
“Oh, it’s way, way, down,” said Eric Johnson, Fallon regional manager for Nevada State Parks.
The lake has about 85,480 acre feet, less than 29 percent of its capacity of 295,000 acre feet.
Meanwhile, the wetlands of Scripps, Alkali Lake, Fernley, Humboldt and Franklin Lake are completely dry, according to NDOW’s fall report. The Pahranagat wetland was at 10 percent of capacity, Mason Valley and Key Pitman wetlands were at 50 percent, Overton and Ruby Lake were at 70 percent, and Steptoe and Kirch were at 90 percent.
Only two of the 14 wetlands surveyed are considered to be having a better water year than 2003.
Other state wetlands that rely on farmland drainage are also combating more-efficient irrigation practices pushed by federal agencies like the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation which reduce drainage to a minimum.
Officials at the Stillwater refuge have acknowledged a drastic drop in drainage water flowing into the important bird migration stop as TCID and farmers continue to increase their efficiency.
For Carson Lake and Stillwater refuge managers to keep their wetlands wet, as they have the past five years, Neill said they’ll have to keep receiving a full irrigation water allotment. With shrinking water supplies, the only way achieve that is a winter of heavy precipitation in the Sierra.
Despite several dry years, the local irrigation district has been able to divert enough water into its reservoirs to fulfill all Lahontan Valley water rights. But each year of drought raises the possibility of too little water getting redirected into Lake Lahontan, which is currently under its target level for this time of year.
Only time will tell whether the recent rainfall and snowstorms will translate into the end of the drought.
Cory McConnell can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sally J. Taylor contributed to this story.