When US Fish and Wildlife biologist Bill Henry was assigned to Stillwater nearly 2 decades ago , the refuge was literally on life support.
The marsh has been here for thousands of years, an essential stop on the Pacific Flyway, home and way station to literally hundreds of species. The marsh was essential to their survival and to the Native Americans who lived along its shores.
Then, for more than a century, it shared the available water with Lahontan Valley farms, getting for the most part drainage off the alfalfa fields. Legal battles over the limited supply of water grew, sometimes the marsh got even less than that. Then, a long drought almost finished it off.
"By July of 1992, the whole wetlands was dry," says Bill Henry of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The drought ended after 1994, but the wetlands still faced an uncertain future. It was at that time a solution was found. With federal funding, Stillwater began the long road back. What it needed all along and had not had in modern times was it's own legally guaranteed source of water. Water rights were purchased and slowly the wetlands rebounded.
Today it’s home to species that hadn't been seen here in more than 30 years. Henry has watched it rebound to see the birds return. This week he was checking on some spring arrivals, egrets and white-faced ibises. The ibis are here in number, but the cool spring has put the growth of the tulles they build their nests in behind schedule and that puts the mating among the ibis on hold.
Still, what he sees is a healthy wetland, a mere fraction of what was once here, but a thriving habitat., a natural jewel set in the high desert.
"It's a great feeling," says Henry. "I get to see the return of species that haven't been seen here since the 70's. It's kind of special."
Stillwater attracts more than wildlife. It attracts those who come to enjoy them. It's a major destination among serious birdwatchers and so something of an economic benefit to the Fallon area.
Locals hope to recruit some new birdwatchers this weekend. The Spring Wings Festival features a number of events, lectures, tours, even kite-flying and on Sunday the release of a Golden Eagle, once injured now recovered.