The drought: It’s worse than it looks

Updated: Jun. 8, 2021 at 6:07 PM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - It’s hardly news that the West is in the grips of an extreme drought, but how bad is it? Do we have enough in our upstream reservoirs to see us through the summer ahead?

At first glance, things don’t look as bad as one might expect. The beach is a little wider on Tahoe’s shores. The Truckee isn’t roaring, but it’s hardly a trickle either and upstream reservoirs--Boca, for example--are lower, but compared with the video we see of reservoirs on the other side of the Sierra, also not as bad as might be expected.

But looks are deceiving and the reason like most every thing else about the Truckee River system, is complicated.

It is, by most accounts, the most litigated and regulated river system in the nation. A list of state and federal agencies, communities and agricultural interests have legal claims to its water.

The federal watermaster is charged with managing its flow and storage. A key measurement of that management is maintaining a legal minimum flow above the Truckee Meadows at Floriston to meet the downstream needs.

In a drought that means careful management of upstream storage, every step dictated by complicated legal agreements. And, at the moment, there isn’t as much up here to manage as it might seem.

Big and deep, Tahoe hides drought well, but at the moment it’s only about two feet above its natural rim, but by October it’s expected to fall below. Long before that, its flow into the Truckee will fall off.

Boca Reservoir is at about 50 percent capacity, but that too doesn’t tell the whole story because much of that water is spoken for and unavailable to keep the Truckee running. The state of California, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Fallon area farms have dibs on some of it. Even our own Truckee Meadows Water Authority has a piece for drought relief.

“The water we need to release to meet our needs, the Floriston rate meets all of our demands municipal and agricultural. We’ve only got 14-thousand acre feet in Boca of the 20-thousand. So, it’s a little deceptive,” says Deputy Chief Federal Watermaster Dave Wathen.

At some point this summer the numbers won’t add up. Current estimates are, by the end of August, the river itself will look different.”

“It will be noticeable,” says Wathen. “There will still be water flowing through town. It won’t completely dry up through town because there are senior rights downstream that we need to pass water down to.”

And then our attentions and hopes will turn to the wintry months ahead.

”We are running out of storage. If we have another dry year like we had this year, the next year could be pretty dire.”

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