By LEIA LARSEN • Standard-Examiner staff
Those who live in the Lahontan Valley call it an oasis.
The valley gets its name from an ancient lake, once 900 feet deep and covering 8,500 square miles. The Lahontan Valley sits on the edge of the Great Basin and still captures water from the Sierra Nevada 100 miles to the west, although the water now feeds a network of wetlands, not a lake.
Like the Great Salt Lake, the Lahontan wetlands are recognized as a site of hemispheric importance for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Stillwater Refuge in 1949.
“Obviously, we’re in the desert and a welcome stop for any birds migrating through here to feed and rest,” said Carl Lunderstadt, deputy project leader for the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
It’s also a haven for agriculture.
“It’s green, our fields are in production, we’re growing a lot of corn, alfalfa, stands of grasses and such,” said Rusty Jardine, district manager and general counsel for the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District. “It looks beautiful. You come here and see this great big green area in the desert.”
In 1902, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation started the Newlands Project, one of the first federal efforts to green the great Western desert.
Through an impressive feat of engineering, four dams and a 68.5-mile network of canals irrigate 57,000 acres in the heart of Nevada. The project helped grow Fallon from a city of 750 in 1900 to about 8,500 residents today.
The trick, however, is maintaining an oasis that can sustain both wildlife and agriculture.
The balancing act for how to use the Lahontan wetlands surfaces some dilemmas residents along the Great Salt Lake may have to face soon if water levels continue to drop. The decline of Utah’s largest lake dramatically harms wildlife and could cause hemispheric repercussions for migrating birds. But the waters feeding the lake are also important for the state’s agricultural industry.
WATER RIGHTS, GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION
Both Nevada and Utah have “use it or lose it” laws pertaining to water rights. The idea was implemented to prevent speculators from buying up rights, sitting on them then selling them for inflated prices. But “use it or lose it” also creates little incentive to leave water for wildlife.
And some don’t see the point, either. It should be used to grow crops, the thinking goes.
But loss of that water threatens wildlife habitat, which means no bird-watching and, potentially, endangered species listings that could bring more federal regulation.
That’s what happened in the Lahontan Valley. All those dams built at the turn of the century worked so well that farming flourished and the marshes began to dry.
In 1990, with no water reaching the wetlands and the birds federal officers were charged with protecting, the Truckee-Carson-Pyramid Lake Water Rights Settlement Act directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to begin buying up local farmers’ water rights to help sustain the wetlands.
The service, along with partners at the State of Nevada, the Nevada Waterfowl Association and the Nature Conservancy, have purchased roughly 34,000 acre-feet of water from about 50 willing sellers to date.
“Our goal is to create 25,000 acres of wetlands; we’re about halfway there,” Lunderstadt said.
While those efforts got water flowing to the wetlands again and created a future for the birds, it’s been a point a contention for many locals.
Lahontan Valley’s case is an ironic one: it was federal intervention that funded the water project to build an agricultural community. Then, 100 years later, the federal government bought up that water and put agriculture out of production.
“A lot of sentiment is: Was this the right thing to do? Should the government get involved in this thing? Should it get engaged in a program that alters the outlay of a community in this fashion?” said Jardine, the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District manager.
The government involvement unsettled many Nevadans in the Lahontan Valley and beyond.
“Who you as a water right owner sell your water right to is your business,” said Doug Busselman, executive vice president of the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation. “Our bigger concern is the use of federal treasury to go about the process of spending taxpayer dollars to acquire those water rights.”
Most of the water-buying efforts came during the economic downturn of the late 2000s. When you’re a small farmer or rancher trying to make a living in the Nevada desert, who can compete with the United States’ checkbook?
The water-rights buying program in the Lahontan Valley now makes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the largest single shareholder in the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District.
A FARM VS. A SUBDIVISION
Busselman said he would have rather seen farmers invited to the table to help come up with solutions.
“We live in a desert. There are limited amounts of water available. And there are other wildlife benefits that come from agriculture using the water in the irrigation fields,” he said. “That seems to get overlooked as attention is given to putting water into lakes that evaporate.”
Nevada is the driest state in the nation. Utah is second. Like its neighboring state to the west, agriculture in Utah plays a big role in the state’s way of life. It makes up 14 percent of the economy and employs about 78,000 people.
But diversions for agriculture — increasingly used to irrigate hay crops shipped out of state — are the biggest culprit in the Great Salt Lake’s decline. They’ve already dropped the lake’s elevation by an estimated 7 feet.
Many advocates for Utah’s Great Salt Lake say they want farmers and ranchers to be at the table to find a solution. There’s value in securing their future in Utah.
Lake Abert, Oregon
Lake Abert in eastern Oregon nearly dried up in 2014, causing brine shrimp populations to crash and a significant drop in visits from migratory birds.
Mono Lake, California
Mono Lake sits 40 feet lower with half the volume than it would have naturally. Its decline is a result of diversions on the lake’s freshwater tributary streams. Those diversions pipe water 350 miles south down an aqueduct to Los Angeles. But the situation at Mono Lake could’ve been much worse.
Owens Lake, California
Dust billows off the dried bed of Owens Lake in Inyo County, California in March 2010. The lake dried after water diversion from the City of Los Angeles and became the largest source of PM 10 pollution in the United States.
Great Salt Lake, Utah
The decline of Utah’s largest lake, which has no outlet, would have rippling impacts on the area’s wildlife. But waters feeding the lake are important for the state’s agricultural industry, too.
Explore our series "Losing the Great Salt Lake" to find out more.
Lahontan Wetlands, Nevada
Like the Great Salt Lake, the Lahontan wetlands are recognized as a site of hemispheric importance for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, supporting populations of American avocets, American white pelicans and white-faced ibis.
“I truly believe I’d rather have a farm than a subdivision,” said Ann Neville, Northern Mountains Regional Director of the Nature Conservancy. “Flood irrigation gets a bad rap, for example, but in some places flood irrigation is supporting wildlife.”
If Utah loses agriculture to more urban development, Great Salt Lake advocates worry about losing those wide open spaces that support birds, too. They also worry less water will return to the Great Salt Lake system as it percolates into the groundwater.
A draft report delivered to the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council last summer lists several possible solutions that could send more water to the lake involving agriculture.
Lining irrigation canals alone could save more than 149 billion gallons per year of water in Utah. Adjusting irrigation schedules based on the water and soil moisture could save another 80 billion gallons per year.
The trick is striking a balance between giving farmers an incentive to conserve and leaving it to government action, like mandated metering or programs that buy up farmers’ water rights.
Even with water rights secured, a changing climate brings other uncertainties. Last winter brought a flood of relief to the Lahontan Valley, but it was preceded by a five-year drought that hurt both farmers and wetlands.
“We had about 1,500 acres of wetlands last year. Normally, at an (average) water year, it’s at 8,000 or 10,000 acres,” said Lunderstadt of Nevada’s Stillwater Refuge.
As Utahns consider how to sustain Great Salt Lake wildlife and provide water to meet the demands of a growing population, Busselman said it’s important to include all stakeholders and consider local dynamics before the federal government steps in.
Each watershed and system in the West is unique, he said, and no one understands that better than the people living there.
“In my mind, agricultural producers are at the top of the list of being conservation-minded people … sometimes that gets lost in attempts to defend themselves and their business operations,” he said. “You have to be able to work those things through a local level.”