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Effects of La Niña on Tahoe/Truckee Snow Uncertain for Upcoming Winter

While other parts of the United States may be in for some extreme temperatures this winter due to La Niña weather patterns, the effects on Tahoe are uncertain.

La Niña is associated with cooler-than-normal water temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean and can bring extreme temperatures and precipitation.

While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports the Northwest may experience a wetter and colder winter than normal, and the Southwest and South may experience a drier and warmer winter than normal, Lake Tahoe falls into the “equal chances” category.

Locals Prepare For High Waters

KOLO-TV Mar 4, 2009
By Auburn Hutton

RENO - One mention of heavy rain in our area, and thoughts about flooding always come to mind.

Residents of Fernley learned the hard way last winter, that it's not always easy to predict when a flood will occur. Local emergency managers say there are no flood watches or warnings currently, but nonetheless, locals aren't taking any chances.

The Truckee River is known for overflowing about every ten years. The most recent major floods were in 1997, and then again in 2006. While we're still not due for a large flood until the year 2016, some people are already getting prepared.

Jad Fricke maintains the building at the Edison Industrial Park in East Reno. Sand is already piled up in his parking lot and a boat is sitting on standby. He says he's seen the area flood three times, so when rain comes in large doses, the Truckee becomes his worst enemy. "When it gets to be a foot below that ledge, I get a little concerned," said Fricke.

Crews who take care of the Last Chance Ditch in Southwest Reno are also busy clearing out space for heavy water flows. A flood there last winter left up to six feet of water in people's yards and basements. They say the clean-up is just preventative, in case the storm sticks around.

Washoe County Emergency Manager, Aaron Kenneston, is reviewing flood plans, and answering questions from local disaster response managers who are concerned about the rain. But Kenneston says a flood is still a long ways away. The Truckee's downtown water level has peaked at under six feet. Flood monitoring only begins when it reaches 11 feet. But still, Kenneston says predictions about storms are not always perfect.

"Clearly, the Fernley flood, that was a classic example. We were ready for flooding in the Reno-Sparks area, and it happened in Fernley. In those cases, that's why they call it a crisis," said Kenneston.

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Public policies affecting water use in Nevada

January 30, 2009

By Loretta Singletary, Extension Educator, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension


Nevada is the seventh largest state in size with more than 110,000 square miles of land area. Nevada is also the driest state in the nation. The fastest growing area of the state, southern Nevada, only gets 4 inches average annual precipitation. Over 68 percent of Nevada's population lives in Clark County in southern Nevada. Approximately 20 percent of the state's population resides in northern Nevada in the communities of Reno, Carson City and Lake Tahoe. To complicate these demographics further, the vast majority of Nevada (87%) is controlled by the federal government.

Water scarcity is one of the most pressing issues facing the American West. Agriculture, cities, towns and industry are the primary water users. There are more conflicts over water than ever before in the American West. More frequently, these conflicts involve litigation.

There are several competing uses for water in Nevada. These include the use of water to:

Irrigate crops, including hay, onions, garlic, melons, potatoes, grapes and other vegetables.
Water livestock, including horses, dairy cattle, beef cattle and sheep.
Sustain habitat to support wildlife including fish, birds, deer, wild horses, and other wildlife.
Supply water recreation opportunities such as fishing, swimming and boating.
Supply other recreation including parks and golf courses.

This fact sheet describes demographic trends in Nevada in light of its history as a leader in water resource development in the western U.S. Population growth and changing attitudes towards water resources in addition to shifts in federal policy create an unprecedented period of conflict and change surrounding water. This is particularly the case for rural Nevadans including farmers and ranchers.

Population Growth and Changing Attitudes Towards Water Resources

Population in the U.S. has increased dramatically since its settlement 400 years ago. The current U.S. population is estimated at 287 million and is expected to increase to 414 million by 2050 (2002).

Nevada is the fastest growing state in the U.S. with a population of nearly 2 million. The majority of Nevadans live in urban areas including Las Vegas, Reno and Carson City. Rural areas located near these urban centers are growing rapidly, providing open space needed for residential, industrial and commercial development that accompanies rapid population growth.

The availability of water resources to meet the demands of increasing population is a question in the minds of many Nevadans, both natives and newcomers. Nevada remains the driest state in the U.S. and the majority of its water resources are legally bound to its traditional use on agricultural lands.

The agriculture sector accounts for about 78 percent of water use statewide in Nevada. And, statewide, commerce and domestic uses claim 13 percent, 7 percent is used for mining, 1 percent for producing power and less than 1 percent for industry. These figures contrast dramatically with southern Nevada, however, where residential uses account for approximately 60 percent, with 8 percent for irrigation of golf courses, schools, parks and other large green areas, 8 percent for hotels and 10 percent for commerce and fire protection.

Current economic growth in Nevada, however, does not rely on agriculture, in spite of the fact that agriculture remains vital to the economic health of its rural communities. And, plentiful water supplies are needed to support continued population and economic growth. Farmers and ranchers in particular are concerned that water resources may be arbitrarily reallocated if the pressure to support growth in urban areas surpasses the state's history of supporting irrigated agriculture.

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Bark beetle threat looms in the Sierra

By Jeff DeLong • Reno Gazzette-Journal• December 1, 2008

Pockets of pines in the Mount Rose area and other stretches of the Carson Range are turning brown -- a disturbing sign that an insect assault that has decimated millions of acres of forests to the east could be headed for the Sierra. Whether that occurs or not, experts say, could likely depend on this winter's weather.

"The potential is there. If we continue with this dry weather, it could pretty much take over," said Gail Durham, forest health specialist with the Nevada Division of Forestry. What could take over is the mountain pine beetle, an insect smaller than a grain of rice that has already destroyed vast swaths of timber in Colorado and other nearby states.

"That little bugger has devastated a lot of property in the Rockies and in Canada," Nevada State Forester Pete Anderson said. "The potential is real high we could have a problem in the Sierra as well."

The threat looms as Nevada has begun to recover from another beetle infestation by the pinyon ips, which killed off millions of acres of pinyon pine until the attack began to slow over the past few years, Anderson said. But other bark beetles, particularly the mountain pine beetle, are waging war against western forests. According to a 2007 report by the Council of Western State Foresters, more than 7 million acres of timber contained dead or dying trees due to beetle assault, with another 22 million acres under the threat of significant mortality over the next 15 years. This level of bark beetle-caused tree mortality is the highest in recorded history, the report said.

Evidence that the problem could be happening locally surfaced in pockets of lodgepole pines around Mount Rose, at Heavenly Mountain Resort near South Lake Tahoe and in the Little Valley area between Reno and Carson City, foresters said.

"It's still at the very beginning stages but we're watching it very closely," Anderson said. "It's pretty grim."

A healthy tree can easily fend off attacks by a few beetles by secreting resin and essentially booting the bugs out of its bark. But when trees are unhealthy in overcrowded stands, particularly when stressed by drought, their defense mechanisms are weakened.

Dreaming of a wet winter at Lake Tahoe

By Annie Flanzraich
Bonanza News Editor

With Lake Tahoe’s water level nearing the natural rim, water authorities are hoping for record-breaking precipitation to bring the water level up.

“We really desperately need a big winter and a big snowpack to bring Lake Tahoe back up again,” said Federal Water Master Garry Stone.

When the water in Lake Tahoe nears the natural rim, which is 6223 feet, water flows less quickly into the Truckee River. As of Wednesday night the lake measured at 6223.25. Normally there are about 250 cubic feet per second running into the Truckee. Right now the rate is about 12 cubic feet per second, Stone said. If the lake level drops below the natural rim no more water will flow into the Truckee.

“We can’t get any more water out of it,” Stone said. “It’s like a bathtub, we do not have the ability to release water through the natural rim.”

After that water from Boca Reservoir and smaller natural streams will flow through the Truckee. Stone said there is enough water in Boca to supply the river until sometime in December.

While the level of the lake does not affect water supply at the towns and villages in the Basin, it does affect other areas like Reno, Stone said.

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Officials: Wet Winter Crucial to Reno Water

Source: KOLO-TV8
Written by: AP
Oct 13, 2008

Reno-area water officials say a wet winter in the Sierra Nevada is crucial to restoring diminished water supplies. Back-to-back skimpy winters have left reservoirs along the Truckee River water shed low.

"This winter is everything," said Chad Blanchard, chief deputy in the federal water master's office in Reno.

Officials say unless the fall brings unusual wet weather, Lake Tahoe, the river's largest water source, could drop below its natural rim by early December - something that hasn't happened since January 2005. While officials say the Reno area won't run out of drinking water, another dry winter likely would mean minimum flows in the Truckee River set by law may not be met.

"It's getting real hard to sugarcoat things," said Bill Hauck, water supply coordinator for the Truckee Meadows Water Authority. "We will be entirely dependent on a good winter this year." What will be affected is the ability to meet the so-called "Floriston rates," a century-old law designed to guarantee a minimum flow of Truckee River water.

That flow is measured at Farad, Calif., just upstream from the Nevada line. The law designed to ensure municipal, agricultural and power generation demands from river water can be satisfied requires that flows of at least 500 cubic feet per second be maintained through the summer, dropping to between 300 and 400 cfs over the winter, depending on available storage at Lake Tahoe.

The Lake Tahoe dam at Tahoe City allows for the storage of up to 6 feet of water above the lake's natural rim. Most of that water is now gone, with the lake level at less than a foot above the rim. Depending on factors such as fall precipitation and evaporation rates, Tahoe should drop below its rim this year by early December, Blanchard said.

At that point, water managers will depend almost exclusively on water stored at Boca Reservoir to maintain minimum river flows. Boca's currently at roughly two-thirds capacity but once it is tapped to maintain Floriston rates, "it will drop dramatically," Blanchard said.

Without added precipitation, achieving the desired rates of river flow will be impossible come mid December. A big winter would help fill Tahoe and other reservoirs and allow water managers to again meet the Floriston rates, hopefully through next summer and fall.

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Watershed impacts irrigation

By Merry Thomas, Fallon Star Press, via RGJ.com
October 3, 2008

If the dry weather conditions continue into fall and early winter, the region could face a slower water release than usual and create the possibility of diverting water from the Truckee River in December, according to TCID Project Manager Dave Overvold.

Releases from Lahontan Dam resumed Wednesday after having been curtailed for nearly two weeks. As of Friday, Sept. 19, which is the latest numbers available, storage was 28,361 acre-feet. The amount of water and rate at which it is released from Lahontan depends on inflow from the Carson River, Overvold said.

The Lahontan Dam is down this season by about two-thirds the average, historically. This means it's likely area farmers will receive deliveries short by about 2,000 acre-feet this season. The maximum Truckee Canal diversion allowed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is 350 cubic feet per second, which is more than will be available by the time the flow reaches the Derby Dam, the TCID Web site stated.

"We want to keep water diverted from the Truckee River at a minimum," Overvold said.

Water gets diverted from Lake Tahoe or from Prosser or Boca reservoirs to make up the difference when there isn't enough naturally occurring water, such as rain. Tuesday, for instance, the water arriving at Derby Dam was released at 133 cfs below the dam. The rate of release from Tahoe is about 189 cfs, and the rate of flow below Derby is expected to drop this month to 113 cfs.

Lake Tahoe dips to its natural rim

By Greyson Howard / Sierra Sun

Now fall, Lake Tahoe and other area lakes and reservoirs are dipping, and may leave the Truckee River a comparative trickle before snow recharges the water supply again. Two slow winters in a row — feeding 31 percent and 32 percent of normal runoff into Tahoe — mean the lake could drop below its natural rim unless precipitation shows up this fall. This means the top of the Truckee River could go dry, and other water stores will have to be leaned on more heavily to supply the Reno/Sparks area.

“At this point it looks like we will get very close to Tahoe’s natural rim,” said Chad Blanchard, chief hydrologist for the U.S. District Court Water Masters Office. Currently the lake is at 6223.80, within 8 inches of the natural rim and down to just 15 percent of the dam’s total storage capacity, he said.

“As the lake drops, the amount going over the dam drops and the amount going down river drops, so we have to supplement that with others. We’re using Boca right now,” Blanchard said. “By the end of the year Boca could be very low also.”

Bill Hauck, the water supply coordinator for the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, said Boca Reservoir could empty to 5 percent of its top capacity.

Prosser Lake will dip down to about one-third its total capacity, and Stampede will be about half its normal volume, Blanchard said.

Donner Lake is being drawn down as usual this fall, emptying the top 9 feet of the lake into Donner Creek, Hauck said. Windy weather has played a major role in lake levels, especially on the enormous surface area of Tahoe, Blanchard said.

“If it is windy it creates huge amounts of evaporation off the lake,” Blanchard said.
Right now, the Truckee is meeting the minimum required rate of 500 cubic feet of water per second, called the Floriston rate, Blanchard said. Blanchard said the flow could slow beyond that minimum rate, but said water demand in Reno and Sparks also drops significantly in the winter, so supplies should be all right.

“We’re hoping for a great winter, but even if we don’t have a great winter we have adequate drought supplies in place,” Hauck said. And as for predicting what winter will bring, Blanchard said it’s too early to make any meaningful predictions. The real forecasting for water supply happens when precipitation is actually on the ground, he said.

“I talk to the weather service and the California Nevada River Forecast Center regularly,” Blanchard said. “There’s nothing concrete but we’re hoping for a wet winter.”

Very wet winter needed to reverse drought trend for Tahoe, Northern Nevada

By Jeff DeLong, Reno Gazette-Journal
September 5, 2008

Nevada continues to suffer through drought conditions, with experts saying nothing is likely to change until the arrival of winter storm season. The federal government's Climate Prediction Center forecasts persisting drought conditions through November. Western Nevada and the Sierra are experiencing moderate drought, while northeast Nevada is "abnormally dry" and east-central Nevada is in severe drought, the center reports.

Long-term weather forecasts offer little in the way of expected change with above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation expected for at least the next month.

"As we are right now, things are pretty bleak," said Gary Barbato, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. "We don't expect any real improvement until at least Thanksgiving or after." That means flows of rivers and streams will continue to drop, Barbato said in a recent drought statement. Some springs and wells in the hardest-hit areas have dried up, while the region continues to face extreme wildfire danger.

Nevada officials have not declared a drought, but California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did in early June. On Aug. 27, 53 of California's 58 counties were given disaster declarations as the result of continued drought conditions, including those nearest to Reno: Lassen, Plumas, Sierra, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Alpine and Mono counties.

Lake Tahoe was at 1.2 feet above its natural rim Thursday and unless some unusual storm activity arrives this fall, and none is expected, it will drop to its rim by early December.

Last weekend, cool and strong winds accelerated the evaporation rate at the lake. Over four days, .18 feet evaporated, said Chad Blanchard, chief deputy water master.

"We had a huge loss over the weekend. The evaporation rates were unbelievable," Blanchard said. "It was definitely one of the worst four-day periods I remember."

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