Water Transfer to Help Dying Walker Lake

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Northern Nevada's Walker Lake, dying a slow death because of drought, evaporation and upstream agriculture along the Walker River, is getting some relief as a result of a federal judge's approval of a temporary river water transfer.

Gov. Kenny Guinn said Thursday the stopgap transfer, approved by U.S. District Judge Edward Reed, will provide 13,588 acre-feet of water for the lake. The water release, which started Tuesday at Bridgeport Reservoir, will be held at Weber Dam closer to the lake and released later in a surge that could reach the lake in a few weeks.

Guinn called the transfer a "productive step" while federal, state and local groups continue to work on solutions to Walker Lake's shrinking water levels - about 140 feet lower than its level in the early 1900s. Biologists say the lake is nearing the point where it won't be able to support fish.

"We know this is a temporary transfer, but we are hopeful that continued negotiations will result in a long-term solution," Guinn added. The court order is effective through next October.

Terry Crawforth, the state's wildlife chief, said the transferred water would normally go to wetlands in the state-owned Mason Valley Wildlife Management Area near Yerington.

"Drought has really forced this issue, and with the Walker Lake ecosystem ... on the verge of collapse, we felt it was critical to act," Crawforth added.

Walker Lake is a remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan, which once covered much of the Great Basin. It's fed by the Walker River that begins in the Sierra Nevada in California.

Besides the loss of river water to upstream water users, the lake loses about four feet of water every year to evaporation, which increases the concentration of salts and other impurities in what's left.

Rich Haskins, fisheries chief for the state Department of Wildlife, said any water will help to reduce excessive salinity and alkalinity in Walker Lake.

The agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raise threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout in hatcheries for stocking in Walker Lake. But many of the fish die because of the increasing salinity.

Water tests conducted in December by the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection showed the lake's level of total dissolved salts and other solids at more than 15,000 parts per million, up from 13,000 just two years before. Levels of 16,000 ppm are lethal to most cutthroat.

Salt levels also threaten the tui chub, whose ability to reproduce falls off dramatically when salinity rises above 12,000 ppm, according to the Wildlife Department.

The small fish is the prime food source for cutthroat, as well as for loons and other migratory birds and waterfowl that flock to the lake in huge numbers.

Two years ago, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., organized a summit of some 300 state and local officials, tribal leaders, scientists, environmentalists and farmers to seek solutions. That led to mediation talks among all the users.

Those negotiations have been under way for about a year, though participants can't discuss details under a confidentiality agreement.


On the Net:

Walker Lake Working Group: http://www.walkerlake.org

Nevada Department of Wildlife: http://www.ndow.org

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.nevada.fws.gov