Sunday, March 11, 2012

Winnemucca Lake 1/2

The skies were darkened. Birds in uncountable numbers chattered and moved in sync; a dark wave of life over the shallow lake. The lake reflected the dramatic desert scenery; the birds seemed even more numerous reflected against the water, the fall clouds passed rapidly overhead. Winnemucca Lake was little more than a mirage against the mountains--by the 1930s the mirage had faded and disappeared.

What remains of Winnemucca Lake today is a vast salt plain; a barren emptiness. The skies no longer blacken with birds. The area is dead.

Winnemucca Lake is the actual end of the Truckee River in Nevada. For thousands of years the waters of the Pyramid would spill out into this shallow basin, leaving a seasonal paradise. In the early 1900s the Newlands project created a series of dams and diversions from the Truckee River to irrigate farmland. At one point there was more Truckee water in ditches and large irrigated farmlands than there was in the actual river.

This led to the rapid recession of the shores of Pyramid Lake. Every year the lake disappeared a little bit more until the shining island that was its namesake had become a peninsula. The water became more saline, the composition changed. The lake started to become poisonous. And instead of overflowing and feeding the marshy Winnemucca Lake as it did most years, it retreated into the desert; evaporating into the thirsty air. Winnemucca Lake was gone. The birds came one year, starved and died. The next year, no birds came.

The meager yet crucial life giving waters of the Truckee had been dammed and diverted to the point that even life in the rivers died out. The Lahontan cutthroat trout, the largest freshwater trout species, could no longer spawn naturally as it always had; unable to breach the dams that blocked them on their way to their spawning grounds, the Lahontan quietly died off. The state record for the largest trout caught will never be surmounted.

The modern Lahontan trout is a smaller sub-species that was transplanted from nearby Summit lake. It is still a large fish but nothing like the behemoth creatures seen in the cracked and torn pictures of yesteryear. Modern Lahontans can’t spawn without human intervention still as most of the dams still remain.