All the way to Tahoe, a legendary fish may return to its historic spawning run

Published: Apr. 20, 2020 at 6:28 PM PDT
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It was cause for celebration in 1905 when work began on the nation's first federal reclamation project.

The Newlands Project diverts water from the Truckee at Derby Dam into a canal sending to the Lahontan Reservoir on the Carson.

It made the desert bloom in the Fallon area. What wasn't evident at the time was the impact it would have on Pyramid Lake and the two unique fish found there.

The long-lived Cui-ui sucker would hang on, able to continue to spawn in the lower Truckee in high water years. With the construction of the Marble Bluff Dam at the lake, it even got a mechanical assist lifting it up into the river.

But the lower Truckee has proven too warm and turbid for the lake's other fish to reproduce.

And what a fish.

A replica of the world's record Lahontan cutthroat trout taken in 1925 hangs in the state museum. It weighed 41 pounds and there are stories of even larger catches.

"Fremont said it was almost a freshwater salmon," says Tim Loux, Senior Fishery Biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Lahontan Hatchery Complex.

And like the salmon, he says, the Lahontan cutthroat is genetically programmed for an heroic journey to spawn upstream to the upper Truckee all the way to Lake Tahoe, a trip blocked for more than a century by Derby Dam.

Cutthroat were returned to the lake decades ago using stock from a remote Summit Lake in Humboldt County, but, isolated for millennia, they evolved as a smaller version of their Pyramid cousins.

In recent years, however, a population of the original strain was found in Utah. They've been introduced back into Pyramid.

So, Loux says the strain which once made the trip up the Truckee to Tahoe is now at Pyramid and driven to swim upstream.

Work is underway at Derby Dam to give them an assist. It's called a fish screen--a device which will let the fish continue up the Truckee with no harm, while still sending water, but no fish into the diversion canal headed to Lahontan where they would be, in effect, an invasive species.

The $31 million dollar project is being funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and built by Oregon based Farmers Conservation Alliance, which has built a number of these screens elsewhere. This one will be the largest anywhere and considering its mission perhaps the most significant, helping to restore a lost fishery while making the dam more reliable for the Truckee Irrigation District and its farmers as well.

Scheduled for completion this fall, it amounts to a win-win for two often competing interests.

"We're seeing this new era," says the alliance's Executive Director Julie Davies O'Shea, "where water infrastructure can help all kinds of people and the environment as well."

Copyright KOLO-TV 2020