Sunday, January 16, 2011

Oasis

Part 1: My Farm for a Lake

In the early 1900s, Reno was little more than a river crossing; a stopover for people before they passed into California. Reno was a largely pastoral trading post for Basque ranchers and the few farmers who dared to grow in the desert. Despite Reno's smallness, weary travelers crossing to California, wayward miners on the tail end of the Comstock lode, Mormons, and any other misfits stupid enough to try to live in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada made Reno the state's only major population center. The boom provided by casinos and Nevada's loose divorce laws also gave a boost to the area's population. This juxtaposition of sizes, big and small, made Reno the biggest little city in the world. A seemingly nonsensical catchphrase that belied some striking truths about the city.

Reno is a nucleus for a huge, naturally beautiful region. It's watershed starts in Lake Tahoe, a pristine blue mountain lake with some of the best clarity in the world. From there, water flows out of Tahoe through the Truckee River tracing several California counties before carving out huge ravines in the mountains and opening up to the large golden valley where Reno sits. The valley sits between the east slope of the Sierra Nevada and Peavine mountain ranges. The base elevation is 4500 ft above sea level; a high desert environment full of the state's flower sagebrush and ancient juniper trees. The Peavine mountain range—when settlers first appeared—was covered in a forest of coniferous trees. Today it is a barren brown and gold hill, populated only with houses at it's base and cheat grass—an inexorable weed—everywhere else. The forest was cut down during the heyday of the Comstock lode and now a mass graveyard of trunks fill up miles of mines below Virginia City. The Truckee river continues through the valley, wending its way to the low point where downtown Reno sits today, it then shoots straight through the narrow corridor of two mountain ranges before turning north and resting in the desert waters of Pyramid Lake. Pyramid Lake is the huge remainder of a large inland sea that once extended through most of Nevada. Today remnants of the sea can be seen in striations in the hills, an indicator of former water levels. The Truckee River doesn't just end at Pyramid Lake. The river's flow is so large that, uninhibited by human affairs, it would fill another lake—Winnemucca--and a large marshland area around Fallon. Currently neither exist: Winnemucca Lake dried up and the marshlands have returned to desert.

In 1955, diversions at Derby Dam—located around the county dump—were so high that the Paiute Tribe—Pyramid Lake's protectors and the rightful owners to all of the Truckee River's water—made a desperate decision to keep the water in Pyramid Lake and let Winnemucca Lake dry up. Winnemucca lake, being shallow and having the unfortunate fate of being in a desert, disappeared almost immediately. What followed was a portent of things to come. In the fall, when migrating birds came to the area, they were greeted with a silty playa; salt and dust, dead plants, and desert. Without water, there was no life. The historical migration of these birds was permanently disrupted. People have commented that the birds were so numerous that they would blacken the sky. In a desert. Life was so plentiful in the desert of Washoe County, that people would be unable to see the sky. The death of Winnemucca Lake was the death of those birds. The largest die off in the region's history occurred and subsequent generations have seen only the slightest hint of what was.

The Truckee Carson Irrigation District (TCID) maintains Derby Dam and diverts a huge portion of the Truckee River's waters south and east to Fernley, Fallon, and finally to Lahontan Reservoir. The water is used to water farmland. This farmland grows two things predominantly: alfalfa and mellons. The mellons are heart of gold cantaloupes; a distinct variety identified with Northern Nevada. The alfalfa grown as feed for cattle. The majority of the cattle that the alfalfa is produced for live in California. The two crops are extremely water intensive. To water alfalfa, the favored way is to simply flood the field and let it soak in. this means that the water, especially in the summer months, is left to evaporate. We lose approximately 4 units of water out of every 10 to evaporation through the natural course of the Truckee. In low desert areas like Las Vegas or Phoenix, they can lose five units. In the hot summer months, these alfalfa farms can easily lose those five units of water and even more on the hottest days. That alfalfa is then transported over the Sierra Nevada mountain range—one of the steepest in the country—to California where it is fed to beef cattle. Cattle are notoriously inefficient creatures, taking huge amounts of alfalfa to gain the slightest bit of weight. Once the cattle are to weight, they are sent to feed lots where they are given corn feed to make the meat taste 'beefier'. The Sierra Nevada provides 65% of California's water and 100% of the Washoe Region's water. With the added export of so many water resources in the form of alfalfa to California, California's share is even higher.

Alfalfa, as a crop, is one of the least profitable and has only the most meager of redeeming qualities. In the early days of the TCID, water was diverted to the valleys of Fernley and Fallon to flood the enormous playas and rid the soil of salt. Initially, diverting water from Winnemucca Lake and turning it into a playa resulting in Northern Nevada's largest bird kill was to flood land that could not grow anything. That land can now support only the most hearty crops after years of human meddling. The profit on alfalfa is so low that none of the farmers in the TCID actually pay for the water, their only water related expenditure is the maintenance costs of Derby Dam. The American capacity for great feats of engineering has been unable to tame the high desert landscape of Nevada.

Reno, Pyramid, the Washoe Tribe, fish, and global warming next!