Lower Truckee River Restoration

Posted: Apr 1, 2005
Written by: 
Brendan Smith

Fed from snow runoff in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, the 110-mile Truckee River flows northeast from Lake Tahoe across the Nevada line past Reno and Sparks into Pyramid Lake on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation.

Objective: Restoration of the Lower Truckee River in Nevada has several major goals, including enhanced wildlife habitat, improved water quality, reduction of potential flood damage, increased recreational opportunities, and open-space protection.

Participants: The Nature Conservancy, cities of Reno and Sparks, Washoe County, Storey County, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, University of Nevada-Reno, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Partners for Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, The Bretzlaff Foundation, Krump Construction, Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Arthur B. Schultz Foundation and Union Pacific Foundation.

History: The Truckee River, a flowing ribbon of life in arid northern Nevada, has suffered a century of pollution and manmade manipulations that have greatly altered and degraded the river. Dams and diversions to supply irrigation for farmland, water for growing cities, and power for hydroelectric plants have drastically lowered water levels. The Derby Dam, completed in 1905, diverts water from the Lower Truckee River 20 miles east of Reno into the Truckee Canal, which transports the water 32 miles to the Carson River to supply the Truckee-Carson Irrigation Project.

Photo by Glenn Clemmer, Nevada Natural Heritage Program

The reservation for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, created in 1859, includes 22 miles of the Lower Truckee River and the 15-mile-long Pyramid Lake. The Tribe has relied upon fishing from Pyramid Lake for centuries. According to local tradition, Pyramid Lake was formed when "Stone Mother" sat down and wept because her children had been dispersed across the land. She wept for such a long time that a great lake formed beneath her, and she turned to stone. A stone formation on the eastern shore of Pyramid Lake resembles a woman sitting next to a basket. The tribe has filed various lawsuits over decreased river flows and increased pollution that have adversely affected native species, including the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout and the endangered cui-ui, a species of sucker fish. Found only in Pyramid Lake, the cui-ui was listed as endangered in 1967. The fish is of such importance that the local Paiute called themselves "Kuyuidokado," which means "Cui-ui eaters."

Despite the numerous diversions, the Truckee River has repeatedly flooded its banks. In 1950 and again in 1955, record floods inundated the Reno area, causing widespread property damage and triggering a public outcry about the lack of flood control. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a three-year flood-control project in 1962 that deepened and straightened sections of the Lower Truckee River to allow increased flows. However, that project had devastating consequences for the river itself. The river channel entrenched downward more than three feet, lowering the water table in the floodplain. The riparian forest of cottonwoods and other native plants died out because their roots could no longer reach the river water. According to The Nature Conservancy, approximately 90 percent of the riparian forest has been lost, along with roughly 70 percent of the hundreds of nesting bird species once common along the river. Nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the river have increased because of effluent discharges from the Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility, a wastewater treatment plant serving Reno and Sparks. Contaminated storm runoff from urban areas, agricultural pesticides, and waste from leaking septic tanks have further degraded the river's ability to sustain life.

Accomplishments: The cities of Reno and Sparks and Washoe County have been planning a more environmentally sound flood-control project along the Lower Truckee River for decades. The resulting Truckee River Flood Management Project received a big boost in 2001 when The Nature Conservancy (TNC) purchased the Ferreto Ranch and its mile of riverfront property. In 2002, after seven years of negotiations, TNC acquired five additional miles of riverfront property by purchasing the 305-acre McCarran Ranch 15 miles east of Reno.

Raising the riverbed at McCarran Ranch
Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

In 2003, TNC completed a $1.2 million pilot project that restored one mile of the Truckee River at McCarran Ranch. More than 18,000 tons of rock was used to raise the river bottom by three feet and narrow the channel width from roughly 200 feet to 120 feet. The changes, meant to undo some of the damage from the 1960s flood-control project, will allow the river to flood its banks and nourish 20 acres of floodplain seeded with native cottonwood, willow and other plant species. Creation of rearing ponds also will help threatened Western Pond Turtles and Leopard Frogs. In 2003, the Reno City Council extended the lease of 350 acre-feet of water rights to TNC to help reestablish vegetation along the riverbanks at McCarran Ranch. The next phase of the project includes the seeding and rehabilitation of 60 more acres of floodplain. "We've put a lot of effort over the past four years to try to reinvigorate this riparian forest. It's about as altered a landscape as you could imagine," says Michael Cameron, TNC's Truckee River project director. "Getting it back into equilibrium is a very difficult thing."

The pilot project has set the stage for an $8 million restoration of five additional miles of the Truckee River at McCarran Ranch under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The $5 million in federal funding for the project is matched by $1.9 million from Reno and Sparks and $500,000 from a 2002 statewide ballot initiative that approved $200 million for parks, open space, and clean-water initiatives. Cameron says the Corps should break ground in 2006. Most of the 80,000 tons of rock needed to raise the riverbed will come from construction on the Reno Transportation Rail Access Corridor.
Just west of McCarran Ranch, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has acquired 2 1/2 miles of riverfront property on the 340-acre Mustang Ranch, Nevada's first legal house of prostitution, which was seized by the IRS in 1999. If funding can be secured, the ranch will be the next restoration project, Cameron says.

The cities of Reno and Sparks hope that restored riparian forest along the Truckee River will naturally absorb high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous from wastewater effluent allowing greater discharges rates needed to accommodate the area's growing population. Shade from new trees along the river could help prevent unhealthy algae blooms and low oxygen levels by keeping the water cooler.

In March 2005, the Washoe County Commission and the Reno and Sparks city councils established a new coordinating committee for the Truckee River Flood Management Project. "This action demonstrates the desire of the local governments to continue to work together to make the flood project a reality and approach the Corps of Engineers on a unified front," Washoe County Manager Katy Singlaub says.

Challenges/constraints: Restoration of the Lower Truckee River has taken considerable time because of the needs, agendas, and bureaucratic hoops of its many partners. "We have a lot of masters," Cameron says. "Trying to serve all their interests at the same time is a stretch." As one example, obtaining permits for the river restoration from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection has taken time and effort, but is an appropriate step to ensure best management practices are followed and water quality standards are met during construction, Cameron says.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe wants to restore the 22 miles of the Lower Truckee River within the reservation, but lacks funding for the $1 million to $2 million per mile cost, says Dan Mosley, environmental specialist in the tribe's Environmental Department. The tribe has removed cattle from riparian areas to allow cottonwood and willow seedlings to take root, and has prohibited development within the 100-year floodplain. "It's getting better because the riparian areas are coming back since we took the cattle off," Mosley says. The endangered cui-ui is raised in a hatchery to ensure its survival. Low river flows increase salinity and alkalinity, making it difficult for the cui-ui to spawn naturally. "They are maintaining their numbers," Mosley says. "They are kind of on a life-support system. We need more flows to really help the population." The tribe purchased the Mustang Ranch's 468 acre-feet of water rights along with other local water rights to boost river flows into Pyramid Lake.

Despite the challenges, restoration of the Lower Truckee River is moving forward because it offers real benefits for wildlife habitat, improved water quality, flood control and recreation. "The health and beauty of this river is a great asset to this community," Cameron says.

For more information see:

The Nature Conservancy-Truckee River Project

Truckee River Watershed Council
Copyright © 2018 Red Lodge Clearinghouse. All rights reserved.