Sunday, March 11, 2012

Winnemucca Lake 2/2

The dams have been built to control flooding and store water in times of drought. Derby dam is the largest. As part of the Newlands project it diverts water from the Truckee to the unironically named Lahontan Reservoir. The reservoir is contaminated with byproducts from the mining days of Nevada’s history. There is a high (but not 'unsafe') level of mercury in the water. The only purpose of the lake is to provide water for the farmlands.

The farms grow mostly alfalfa. Alfalfa is a low intensity crop that can replenish soils. Many farmers in other parts of the country use it as a replenishing crop to avoid agricultural collapses. A prominent example of agricultural collapse is the Fertile Crescent region of the world; a place that was once lush enough to spawn civilization but is now the nearly barren Iraqi desert.

Alfalfa requires huge amounts of water to grow though. In areas such as the Nile Delta of Egypt where seasonal flooding encourages the growth of replenishing crops such as alfalfa, there is a restorative and logical need for alfalfa. In desert environments, the low quality soil makes it necessary to use huge amounts of water and fertilizer, negating any long-term benefits of the crop.

Churchill County High School’s mascot is the Green Wave--a reference to the vast alfalfa fields that are fed by Lahontan Reservoir’s waters. This green wave does not support extra wildlife. The alfalfa is harvested and baled up to feed cows across the border in California.

Hope for restoring Winnemucca Lake is misplaced. State route 420 paved over the bed that connected Pyramid to Winnemucca. The true Lahontan cutthroat is extinct and more aggressive species have taken its place. Derby Dam is considered an economically vital historical landmark and will never be torn down. Pyramid Lake’s waters have receded too much to ever return--although the Pyramid is once again an island.

The slow leaching of the Comstock mine into Lahontan Reservoir will eventually turn the Green Wave into an alkaline flood plain. The Truckee River runs its course in staccato fits, unable to flow quietly to its desert home. Man has conquered the thin blue thread that connected three of the most pristine lakes in the world together. We have conquered it, but are we in control?

There is no clear path forward in managing such a tight resource. Perhaps a miracle and a ray of hope. Recently what is believed to be the original Pyramid Lake strain of Lahontan cutthroat was found in a small stream on the Nevada-Utah border. Efforts are underway to try to reintroduce them to their native waters. Sometimes we can resurrect the dead. And sometimes, with a little luck and planning, human intervention can be right.