Friday, January 21, 2011

Oasis Part 5: Drowning in the Desert

Honey Lake near Susanville, California is a large basin where water has steadily pooled over the centuries. It is a valley very similar to Winnemucca Lake, and was formed by almost identical forces. Honey Lake is approximately 40 miles from Reno's city limits. A distance that has to traverse mountain ranges and large spans of desert. If the gods that formed the area had it their way, Honey Lake would never be part of Washoe County's water supply. Instead, poor foresight and restricting water policies have put the county in a position to import large amounts of water from Honey Lake.

Depending on where one lives in the county, water tables for the Truckee Meadows are steadily decreasing at a rate of 1 to 2 feet per year on average. This is largely due to wells in the area. For many in the region, a hookup to city water is impractical and they opt instead to use well water. This isn't normally a problem except that the recharge rate in the region is unable to keep up with growth. In the years 2000 to 2009, there was only 1 year that had average or above average flows. Every other year was a drought year. And not just any type of drought, these years were some of the worst on record for drought; it was a series of abnormally low flow drought years. Granted they were not the worst ever, but they still fell below most other drought years.

The past two years have been fairly wet due to el nino, but reliance on decennial weather patterns in a region as dry as the Truckee Meadows is not the best method of planning. In the Mt. Rose corridor, people's wells are starting to pull up hot air. The Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA) has offered to extend services to them at about the same cost as drilling deeper wells. Most have taken the city up on this offer. That is probably the way of things to come, the water tables in Washoe county cannot sustain continued usage in this manner.

The extension of services also serves another purpose in the county—water quality. Water from underground sources, and to some extent from the Truckee River, has elevated levels of arsenic in it. Treating that water has become an enormous concern for the county. While WC-3 (the voter sponsored water ballot initiative) may have capped growth at 600,000 water quality will probably limit the population far before that. As is, the capacity for producing clean water is complicated by aging treatment facilities and a lack of money for new services. As previously mentioned, tax rates on homes decrease over time, and homes in the valley aren't metered for usage. This means that our water utilities have a limited budget on which to make needed improvements—that scope is only decreasing with age.

So the region needs to search for new development to continue to operate in the black. That means a continued strain on water resources and a perpetuation of the cycle of water. There is a 'growth imperative' in the county, one that has made all development good development. Accordingly, the state mandated regional plan has gone basically unenforced. That is not to say that people aren't concerned with the regional plan, more that it has few if any penalties for its violation, has vague and easily circumvented guidelines, and there is little political will to maintain many aspects of it. This lack of impetus makes sense when one follows the money and connections in the area. This is not a case of corruption, but more one of political back scratching.

In Washoe County, developers hold huge sway. They have been the economic driving force in the region for the last 30 years. They are also the people that will ultimately fund many of the projects that will help recover the region and bring it back to economic prosperity. It is no surprise then that many of the people that sit on the governing boards have taken significant contributions from developers. By significant I mean well over half of campaign donations can often be attributed to developers.

Developers are not regional planners. They have an economic drive to maximize profits. They run a business; it is not generally expected that they have other concerns. And for the most part this has been true. It is expected that the political system is in place to temper those motives and create a community conscious of all impacts of a development. This has largely been ignored.

An excellent example is that of buying up water rights in the region. Back when there was only one buyer for rights (Sierra Pacific, later TMWA), rights sold for about $100 per acre/foot. When the cities, county, and later developers entered the market, water rights jumped to over $2000 dollars per acre/foot. The cities, TMWA, and the county were priced out of the market and only developers remained to purchase water rights. The public utility still has to provide water to the region, but because obtaining new rights is inordinately expensive, and because the regional plan dictates that water will stay in the Truckee Meadows, new water must be found to fuel the development in the North Valleys (a basin outside the Truckee Meadows).

To do this, developers are building a pipeline over 40 miles in length from Honey Lake to the North Valleys. This is not a cheap prospect. It is also unsustainable. There are approximately 10,000 to 15,000 acre/feet available for usage in the Honey Lake basin. This water is actually groundwater. That means that it will not recharge at the rate that we remove it. There is generally an acceptable recharge rate, but the unreliability of the basin and excess of drought years has thrown the exact number into question. No matter, the developers have the paper rights to up to 15,000 acre/feet and they will use it, regardless of the reality. Honey Lake will most likely disappear slowly, and when the water does run out, it will be left to the public utility and the taxpayers. Honey Lake is a stop-gap measure until TMWA integrates the new developments in the North Valleys into the service area.

The importation of Honey Lake water could have easily been avoided if some careful foresight and planning had been put into the region. For years, experts and citizens have been recommending several things that would have put the area in a position to prevent expensive importation projects. As it stands, there is enough water in the Truckee River to service everyone living in Washoe County; recharge rates have some difficulty but the flow of the river is consistent and high enough that there is zero need to import water—even in drought years.

The policy of unfettered growth which has led to the creation of the North Valleys and its demand for water was a severe blow to regional planning. The expansion of services to an area outside the Truckee River basin made for an interesting pickle. The regional plan prohibited the expulsion of water from the Truckee River's basin, but the rapid expansion of the North Valleys made a source of water necessary. If development had been limited in the North Valleys or the regional plan was amended to allow Truckee Water to be ported to the North Valleys, then Honey Lake would be a moot point.

Furthermore, because there has been this explosion of growth, gone relatively unchecked by other forces, the county has experienced a huge loss of its floodplains. This is bad in wet years for obvious reasons; what is normally a floodplains is now homes and parking lots, nothing absorbs and we lose significant amounts of water to recharge our water tables. In dry years it is even worse, because the water from the wet years is not in the tables, water has to be managed much more carefully and it taxes the system horribly. It is also a nightmare for infrastructure. Many houses in the South Valleys are sinking into the soft soil, roads are more prone to severe damage, and any buildings in the plain during a flood are severely damaged—possibly destroyed. As we continue into the 21st century, that may become an even worse problem. The Truckee River's flows have become more extreme in the last 30 years—highs are higher and lows are lower. Droughts last longer and yield less water. Without a careful re-evaluation of priorities, Reno could whither and die.

Next: Spring Mountain, the Regional Plan, Politics, and Institutions.