JSNH&B home • Fall 2015 • vol. 6 no. 2

The Lake Tahoe Water War

by Mark McLaughlin


quoteWhiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over. unquote

After his short stint in Nevada Territory writing for the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise, humorist Mark Twain stated “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.” Water is indeed the most precious natural resource in the arid West, and from that perspective it should come as no surprise that water rights issues on Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River have been at the center of negotiation and controversy since pioneers first settled the region.

Only twenty years after Lt. John C. Frémont “discovered” Lake Tahoe in 1844, there were already plenty of entrepreneurs scheming how to exploit the waters of this spectacular alpine lake. The most ambitious of these early diversion plans included transporting water to Carson City and Virginia City, Nevada; to the gold diggings of western Placer County; and to San Francisco. Although these mammoth public works projects failed to gain sufficient popular, political, and economic support, by the early 20th century Lake Tahoe had been tapped as the primary reservoir for irrigation and municipal water use in western Nevada.

In 1870, engineer Alexis von Schmidt had overseen construction of a small dam a short distance below the headwaters of the Truckee River (Lake Tahoe’s only outlet near Tahoe City) to create water storage for his proposed “grand aqueduct” to San Francisco. The rock-filled timber crib dam raised the level of the lake, but Von Schmidt’s project fizzled due to suspicion of its financial cost by San Francisco residents, as well as fierce local resistance in Truckee and western Nevada. Meanwhile the California legislature authorized the Donner Boom and Logging Company, a subsidiary of the Central Pacific Railroad, to take control of the dam. The company regulated, for a fee, water flow to float logs to the mills in Truckee and later for power generation.

The Tahoe dam was trouble from the start. Water impounded for log fluming caused flooding along shoreline owned by politically influential lakefront property owners. The original dam was later enlarged when the Truckee River General Electric Company acquired ownership of the dam to provide a steady, year-round water source for hydroelectric power plants along the river. Based on this seemingly reliable and inexpensive energy source, entrepreneurs built processing and manufacturing plants along the Truckee River. To maintain their year-round minimum flow, the company raised water levels in the Tahoe Basin, thus drawing heated protests from lakeshore owners complaining about soil erosion and the use of their piers, boathouses, and beaches. (On-going shoreline erosion due to enhanced water levels is still a major issue at Lake Tahoe since sediment loading into the lake reduces water clarity.)

Bi-state bickering over the allocation of Lake Tahoe water continued until 1890 when a well-connected attorney and soon to be congressman, Francis G. Newlands, proposed a network of reservoirs in the Sierra to serve the future development of Nevada. According to Newlands, Tahoe afforded the “cheapest reservoir space in the West.” Newlands’ radical ideas and bold rhetoric concerning the appropriation of Lake Tahoe water for agricultural expansion in Nevada (the driest state in the nation) upset California residents and politicians.

Immediately after his election to the U.S. Senate in 1902, Newlands sponsored a measure through which the federal government would provide water for irrigation in arid regions throughout the West. President Roosevelt supported the legislation and quickly signed the Reclamation Act. The following year the Department of the Interior notified California and Nevada officials that the federal government would be assuming the right to control the water stored in Lake Tahoe behind the dam. Sen. Newlands had upped the ante in the “Tahoe water war.”

The Legacy of Dr. Church

In 1903 the first major effort under the Reclamation Act, the Federal Newlands Reclamation Project, broke ground in western Nevada with the goal of transforming Lahontan Valley desert into farmland. (The area receives about four inches of precipitation annually.) By 1905 the Derby Diversion Dam was in place east of Reno diverting Truckee River water into a 32-mile long canal that nourished newly established farms near Fallon in the Lahontan Valley and supplemented flow in the lower Carson River. Despite the massive irrigation project, everyone was assured that there would be plenty of water available for all users on the Truckee River system.

Unfortunately, the engineers who planned the Newlands Irrigation Project miscalculated and overestimated the reliability of the Truckee River water supply. Highly erratic periods of precipitation and river flows combined with limited upstream storage failed to accommodate extreme periods of drought. Angry farmers who had been lured to the project rebelled over water shortages during the growing season.

To address concerns by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe located below the Derby Dam, a U.S. government treaty promised the Paiute Indians enough water to maintain their historic fishery at the mouth of the river. Despite these assurances, the Derby Dam cut water flow into Pyramid Lake by half. (By 1967 Pyramid Lake had dropped 87 feet, which prevented the endangered cui-ui fish and threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout from migrating upstream to spawn. Falling water levels and increased salinity nearly destroyed the tribe’s vital fishery.)

Ironically, while lakes and wetlands in Western Nevada were drying up, lakefront owners at Lake Tahoe were protesting that the excessively high water level behind the dam was impacting their property values and business interests. To increase their political clout, in 1913 a group of prominent property owners created the Lake Tahoe Protection Association to preserve the lake’s beauty and ecology.

The epic winter of 1906-07 dumped a record 73.5 feet of snow on the Sierra. The deep snowpack melted rapidly when torrential rain soaked the region in late February and March. Concerned about dangerously high water levels behind the dam, the power company prematurely released too much water, which cut short the amount available for Nevada farmers. The on-going Tahoe water war generated intense passion and anger between neighbors in the watershed. Despite their conflicts, the many users of Lake Tahoe’s water—property owners at the lake, the power company and its customers, farmers, ranchers, and Indians—all realized they had a vital interest in anticipating the seasonal rise and fall of the lake.

During the snowmelt period in spring, high water in Lake Tahoe frequently eroded the lake’s shoreline. In 1909 lakeside residents issued an ultimatum to the Truckee River General Electric Company (the predecessor of present-day Sierra Pacific Power Company) insisting that Lake Tahoe must be lowered sufficiently each winter to preclude all possibility of spring flooding. Dissatisfied with the utility’s response to their demands, in 1913 residents sued claiming that artificially high water levels were damaging the Tahoe shoreline and eroding tons of soil, which affected water quality and clarity. The Truckee River is probably one of the most litigated waterways in the country.

In order to better forecast and control the seasonal fluctuations at Lake Tahoe, University of Nevada professor Dr. James E. Church developed a snow survey system which measured water content in the Tahoe Basin snowpack. A good correlation was found between the late March water equivalent in the snowpack and the spring rise in the lake. The first practical application of Church’s snow surveys enabled Tahoe dam operators to better regulate releases to prevent both flooding and waste of water, which helped to temporarily tone down the conflict between lakefront property owners, the power company, and others.

Dr. Church is credited with ending the Tahoe water war, but adequately controlling the lake’s elevation is an on-going challenge. A major obstacle to successfully managing Tahoe as a reservoir is that engineers have compressed its broad natural variations into a narrow six-foot limit. When the lake’s water level falls to 6,223 feet mean sea level, it stops feeding the Truckee River. Federal law prohibits storage of water in Lake Tahoe above 6,229.1 feet, which is the limit decreed in the 1935 Truckee River Agreement. The same agreement appointed a Federal Water Master to manage storage and diversions on the Truckee River and established certain minimum and maximum flows at the Farad gaging station near the state line.

Drought and Response

It is sheer hubris to think that in our erratic western climate, which swings between desiccating drought and heavy wet winters, Lake Tahoe can be kept in perfect equilibrium to satisfy all users. History has proven otherwise. Long-term droughts have dropped the lake well below the natural rim, rendering the reservoir useless for extended periods of time, while powerful storms and wet mantle floods (rain-on-snow) have forced the release of Tahoe water into an already swollen Truckee River and aggravated existing flood conditions. Indicative of our region’s climatic volatility, 20 major floods have occurred on the Truckee River in the last 150 years.

High water levels and flood mitigation are only one side of the coin. Extensive tree ring analysis indicates that severe droughts lasting centuries or more have seared the western landscape in the not-so-distant past. Ancient tree stumps underwater in Lake Tahoe are convincing evidence of climate change and a long-term dry period that occurred between 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. The submerged trees were first discovered in 1934 by Samuel Harding, a University of California, Berkeley scientist, who noticed the drowned stumps after a prolonged drought had lowered Tahoe’s water level 14 inches below the rim. In recent decades submerged trees have been located off various shores of the lake, the oldest dating to 6,300 years. Scientists theorize that a mega-drought lowered Tahoe’s water level long enough for a forest to sprout and grow for decades before a changing climate pattern increased annual precipitation in the region and raised the lake.

More recently during severe drought in the 1920s and 1930s, Lake Tahoe fell below its rim eight years in a row and the Truckee River dried up. To satisfy downstream water demand, large pumps were installed near the Tahoe Dam; over several years more than 117,000 acre feet of water was sucked from the lake. Newspapers reported that Tahoe residents were intent on sabotaging the pumps. Armed confrontations were barely averted between Tahoe residents and hired hands doing the bidding of farmers in Fallon. In the middle of a hot August night in 1930, Nevada “water interests” sent a steam shovel under police escort to the Tahoe Dam to dig a trench around it on land owned by Sierra Pacific Power Co. (successor to the Truckee River General Electric Co.) A violent clash between Tahoe locals and the Nevada crew was narrowly avoided when a deputy sheriff issued a cease and desist order to the steam shovel operator. Tahoe residents stood guard at the dam all night as rumors spread that Nevadans might be tempted to blast an opening in the natural rim with dynamite. The following night, the steam shovel was vandalized and the newly dug ditch partially filled back in. A court injunction soon put a stop to Nevada’s bold but illegal attempt to bypass the dam.

Lake Tahoe as “Controlled Reservoir”

The years from 1987 to 1994 represent the second worst drought on record for the region. Lake Tahoe fell three feet below the rim and the Truckee River was cut off for several years. Nevada municipalities survived on ground water aquifers, but Fallon farmers suffered large agricultural losses and there were major impacts to area wetlands.

The media proclaimed the wet winter of 2004-05 a “drought buster” as heavy rains and a fat snowpack has replenished lakes, rivers and reservoirs throughout the Sierra, but Lake Tahoe’s reservoir storage is currently only about 20 percent of capacity, a legacy of several consecutive dry years prior.

There were plenty of skeptics when the U.S. government made its decision to convert the huge lake into a controlled reservoir with six feet of storage. Pioneers like George Peckham, who moved to Nevada in 1864, two years after the great January flood of 1862 when nine feet of rain fell on Nevada City in 60 days, pointed to eyewitness testimony by teamsters who were stranded near Tahoe at the time that the lake level rose to approximately 6,235 feet. And that was before a dam was in place at the outlet. After observing shoreline evidence, Peckham stated that the natural variation of Lake Tahoe was closer to 15 feet, not six. He wrote that a margin of six feet “is entirely inadequate to take care of the surplus water from the watershed of Tahoe during the flood years or furnish enough water during the dry periods.”

The prescient Peckham was spitting into the wind as far as the government was concerned, but a quick review of Lake Tahoe elevation data shows that he was right. A comparison of the lake’s highest and lowest water levels measured over the last century reveal a range of eleven feet. The highest level on record is 6,231 feet in July 1907, with the lowest reading of 6,220 feet measured in November 1992.

Water Management

The snow surveys are very helpful in forecasting seasonal replenishment into Lake Tahoe, but determining how much of the lake’s water will be available when it’s needed is like hitting a moving target. The art of managing Tahoe’s storage elevation is based primarily on measuring the results of winter storm activity, but on average, nearly 75% of the water stored in the lake is lost to evaporation. Summertime air temperatures along with wind conditions significantly affect the lake’s water level, usually stealing about three feet of water each year. A strong wind can evaporate more than 1 billion gallons of water from Lake Tahoe in a day. In other words, much more water dissipates into thin air than is ever released into the Truckee River.

In 1913, a modern concrete buttress dam designed with 17 gates was completed, and in 1915 a federal district court awarded the U.S. government control of the structure. To acquire the recently completed dam from the Truckee River General Electric Co., the court ruling guaranteed the power company a specified flow of water throughout the year while ignoring other existing water rights. It was a recipe for disaster. The new dam further boosted the maximum elevation of Lake Tahoe, but the government wanted indemnity from any problems caused by the higher water levels. The Bureau of Reclamation requested that Tahoe property owners sign quitclaims releasing the government from any liability associated with the potential impact of using Lake Tahoe as a reservoir. The local community was outraged and a mass meeting was held at Lake Tahoe by incensed residents and business owners, environmental groups, and various state and local governmental agencies.

It was the opening salvo of another Tahoe water war that was temporarily resolved with the ratification of the Truckee River Agreement in 1935 and the Truckee River Final Decree in 1944. Any one with a sense of humor and knowledge of the complicated politics and policies that burden the hydrologic management of Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River can appreciate the irony in the title “Final Decree.”

The Truckee River

As a rule Lake Tahoe’s elevation is kept as high as possible to offset the constant fear of drought and threat of insufficient water supplies for downstream users. Ironically, it is the same downstream users who want Tahoe’s water maintained at high levels in case of drought are the ones who suffer most when the Truckee River overflows its banks, such as the $650 million flood event that occurred in early January 1997. Heavy rain in December 1996 raised the lake to 6,229.39, three-tenths of a foot over its maximum legal level, which forced Federal Water Master Garry Stone to open all 17 gates of the Lake Tahoe Dam and release near record levels of 2,630 cubic feet per second into the raging Truckee River. Western Nevada, and especially Reno and Sparks, were inundated. The media called the ’97 flood an act of God, but at the peak of the flood it is estimated that nearly 45 percent of the water flowing through downtown Reno was coming from Lake Tahoe through gates kept open by an archaic government water policy.

The Water Master’s duty is to administer the most recently ratified federal court decrees with regard to the Truckee River and the Carson River. The original purpose of the Tahoe dam and the management of Lake Tahoe was to store water for the agricultural industry in Fallon, not protection for fish, wildlife, property, or the environment. Under the current Truckee River Compact, Lake Tahoe’s operating goal is to provide as much water to the downstream users as possible without causing shoreline damage along Lake Tahoe. Flood control is not provided for under the decree. The Water Master is required by law to release as much water as possible whenever the lake nears the 6,229.1 maximum elevation mark regardless of hydrologic conditions downstream.

An updated and more comprehensive Truckee River Operating Agreement (TROA) is under review at this time (2005). The TROA would modify existing operations of all designated reservoirs to enhance coordination and flexibility while ensuring that existing water rights are served and flood control and safety requirements are met. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, TROA would, in part, (1) enhance conditions for the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout and endangered cui-ui in the Truckee River basin; (2) increase municipal and industrial drought protection for Truckee Meadows (Reno-Sparks metropolitan area); (3) improve Truckee River water quality downstream from Sparks, Nevada; and (4) enhance stream flows and recreational opportunities in the Truckee River Basin.

The anticipated TROA is a much needed update to better management of the Lake Tahoe-Truckee River hydrologic basin, but whether it will put an end to the ongoing Tahoe water war controversy is far from clear.