Who Killed Walker Lake?: By Dave Red Boy Schildt
Walker Basin Restoration Program Website:
2017 Lake Level:
3,918 Feet Above Sea Level
Loss of -172 Vertical Feet of Water Level, since irrigation began on the Walker River.
*1882 Lake Level:
4,090 Feet Above Sea Level
*Level of lake without upstream diversions and irrigation.
There are several reservoirs along the Walker River. All reservoirs are currently receiving fresh water in the Spring of 2015, and all have an active ecosystem with fish life, unlike Walker Lake. Walker Lake is the only natural body of water along the Walker River and is the only body of water to not receive fresh water from Walker River and is the only of body of water to have an extinct fish population due to poor water quality caused by upstream diversions.
Walker Lake is not only important for the environment, but is also important for the economy of Mineral County. The town of Hawthorne has declined in population with the decline of the water levels at Walker Lake. The lake was once a very popular recreational area and provided great income for the businesses in the county. This is no longer the case. A dead lake is not good for many things but problems. Walker Lake is now dead. The question is, can it be brought back to life?
*Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
*Graph courtesy of U.S. Geological Survery
* Images courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
Walker River 2014/2015/2016
It is hard to comprehend why a beautiful natural ecosystem has been sacrificed for desert hay farming, and reservoirs. Walker Lake has never been a priority and only receives water when there is an extra snowpack. It has been an obvious issue for the lake with a steady decline in water levels dating back to the the early 1900s. Upstream water usage is understandable and necessary to a degree, but to destroy the entire Walker Lake ecostyem and not even attempt to provide stability to the lake is sad and just plain wrong. All along the Walker River Basin, everyone gets their water (ranchers, reservoirs, etc.) except Walker Lake. Right now, in the spring of 2015, Walker River is flowing with high levels before arriving in the Yerington farming district where the river is drained, leaving small amounts of water to flow into Weber Reservoir, where the river stops. Walker Lake is drying up a little more everyday while receiving no water from its only water source, Walker River.
As you can see in the map above, half the lake, or at least at one point, half the lake resided within the Walker River Indian Reservation. The tribe is named after the river that flows into Walker Lake and flows through the reservations land. At one point the mouth of Walker Lake went all the way to where Highway 95 crosses the river. Now this point is over 12 miles from the mouth of the lake and the river does not flow anywhere close to Walker Lake. The water levels at Weber Reservoir have stayed relatively steady since it was first created in 1934, while Walker Lake has dropped over a 100 vertical feet, and lost miles of shoreline in the same time frame. The pictures below shows the Walker River at the bridge where Highway 95 crosses the river, the former mouth of Walker Lake. As you can see in the pictures, the water is not flowing and even if it were, it would be difficult for the water flow to make it all the way to Walker Lake with the amount of plant growth in the river bed. This is sad and shameful. Walker Lake was once an important part of life for the Schurz Paiute Tribe but their efforts to provide Walker Lake with a steady water supply, have been lackluster to say the least.
The pictures above show the Walker River at different points. These are recent pictures that show the large drop in water levels once the river passes Yerington, NV. Recent years have been struck by drought with low snow pack levels, but the river still flows, and no water reaches Walker Lake.
Walker Lake Crusaders
Beautiful Walker Lake, NV
The Walker Lake Working Group holds a monthly meeting at the Hawthorne library. The next meeting will be on Monday, August 14th, 2017 at 2:00 p.m. The meeting is open to all concerned citizens.
Walker River is currently flowing to Walker Lake!! This is the first time in 6 years that Walker Lake has received significant inflow from Walker River. In the few months since Walker River has reached Walker Lake, the lake has increased by over 9 vertical feet. This year has been a blessing for Walker Lake.
Walker Basin Hydro Mapper
Cliff House Motel 2015
Walker Lake, NV, Spring 2015
Walker Lake is a beautiful terminus lake (end of a river) located near the town of Hawthorne, Nevada. Walker Lake is a remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan that covered much of northwestern Nevada during the Ice Age. Walker Lake is a desert paradise but has been slowly dying for the last 100 years. The lake continues to shrink, because most years the Walker River does not flow into the lake. The lake is considered a fresh water lake but with the water level continually dropping and alkaline levels continually rising, Walker Lake is turning into an empty salt lake, with life ceasing to exist. Walker Lake's main fish species, the Lahontan Cutthroat trout have essentially become extinct in the lake because the salt levels are too high for the fish to survive.
The image above shows all the areas of irrigation along the Walker River. Every year these areas receive water from the Walker River, while Walker Lakes suffers year after year, with no water being reserved for the lake.
-Feet above sea level
The graph shows the decline in water level at Walker Lake. The left hand column indicates the lakes level in vertical feet above sea level. The average rate of natural evaporation at Walker Lake is 4.1 vertical feet per year. Without water inflow from Walker River, Walker Lake will continue to drop on a daily basis.
The picture above shows the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. Walker Lake was once a fishing hotspot with world class Lahontan Cuttroat Trout, weighing up to 30lbs. The last reported catch of the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout was reported in 2011. Image courtesy of Western Native Trout Initiative.
The picture above shows the devastating level of Walker Lakes decline over the last 30 years. In this 30 year period the lake has dropped over 60 vertical feet. It is unbelievable how a natural body of water is losing lake level at this rate and no real changes have been made to prevent this destruction of a natural ecosystem.
Walker Lake is still a wonderful place that should be enjoyed by people of all ages. Walker Lake provides summer swimming, camping areas, hiking and great places to explore with your off road vehicle. Walker Lake now has a working boat ramp at Monument Beach beneath the Buffalo Stop.
When the lake level decreases, dissolved-solids concentration increases, which lowers the quality of water at Walker Lake. This toxic combination is too much for the fishery to survive. The dissolved-solids concentration level at Walker Lake is now too high to support the native fish at the lake, with levels exceeding 27,000 milligrams per liter. Fresh water contains less than 1,000 milligrams per liter. The chart below shows the relation between the water levels dropping and dissolved-solids concentration increasing.
Before irrigation began taking away water from Walker River and water levels began to drastically decrease at the lake, the dissolved-solids concentration levels were very low. The dissolved-solids concentration levels have steadily increased with more of a drastic increase in the last 20 years. The chart does not even fully show where concentration levels are today, with levels exceeding 27,000 milligrams per liter, compared to less than 2,500 milligrams per liter before Walker River irrigation began and over 3x as much as in 1985 when levels were less than 8,500 milligrams per liter. The native fish species cannot survive with levels over 16,000 milligrams per liter. It is safe to say we will never see the lake at the levels from the 1880's but asking to maintain the lake at levels found in the mid 1980's, should not be too much to ask. Natural interferences such as drought, will always be an obstacle but man made actions should not be accepted, when they have destroyed a completely healthy ecosystem. Before irrigation began, the lake had a maximum depth at well over 240 feet. Today the maximum depth at the lake is only around 70 feet and decreasing daily. With the rate at which the lake has been dropping, in 20 years it may be called the Walker Puddle. This is no pun, at current rates this is very much possible without human intervention. Something must be done, and results must be made. Walker Lake needs a fresh water inflow, and needs it now!
Scientific estimates (Desert Research Institute) state that if water from Walker River was never diverted and made its natural course to Walker Lake, the lake would be over 200 vertical feet higher today, compared to the actual 2016 levels. That is hard to imagine, just think while driving around Walker Lake, your car would be under water because the water levels would be so high. The salt levels would also be extremely low, where multiple types of fish species could thrive.
The maps below outlines the lake today and in the past. You can see the lake is now only 1/4 its former size. The 1985 lake level would provide proper water levels to dilute the lethal dissolved-solids concentration levels, which would maintain fish life and provide Walker Lake with a healthy ecosystem. The dark blue outline showing the levels prior to irrigation is completely astonishing. If Walker Lake were the same size today as in 1868, the town of Hawthorne would less than 2 miles from the lake.
The destruction to the Walker Lake ecosystem has been human created. Upstream diversions have stopped almost all of the Walker River water flow from reaching the lake. This has had devastating effects, dropping the lake 180+ vertical feet since 1882, the first year lake levels were recorded (irrigation began in 1868, when lake levels first began to decline). The lake is now at the lowest point in recorded history (and dropping on a daily basis). The lake is now roughly 12 miles long and less than 5 miles wide which is only a small portion of its former size. Walker Lake has lost over 80% of its original volume since 1882. Upstream reservoirs and agriculture diversions have proved to be much more important than the natural ecosystem of Walker Lake. The devastating destruction of Walker Lake is extremely sad to witness. Walker Lake was once a very popular place for fishermen, boaters, tourists, and all types of migrating birds. Now you are lucky to see anyone enjoying the lake. Walker Lake could and should still be a healthy ecosystem. No real changes or efforts have been made to save the lake. Not to say many have not tried, but the negative results of upstream irrigation are easy to see, when lake levels drop everyday, year after year. Land irrigated for agricultural production increased from 0 acres in 1850 to over 111,000 acres today. Walker Lake is allocated 0% of the water rights from Walker River each year, while upstream farmers receive water every year for irrigating 111,000+ acres of alfalfa and onion fields.The pictures below shows the farming techniques being used in Yerington, NV during spring and summer 2015. Flooding fields is just a waste of water and sad to see when the Walker River does not flow past Weber Reservoir. These dated irrigation techniques are just one of the reasons Walker Lake receives little to no water every year. The picture on the left depicts a random lot that is flooded with river water. This is not even an agriculture field. Random lots in Yerington, NV are currently receiving more water from the Walker River than Walker Lake.
Nevada Department of Wildlife Website:
Image Courtesy of NFWF
FEDERAL JUDGE RULES AGAINST ALL WALKER RIVER PETITIONS, SETTING UP APPEALS TO HIGHER COURT
On Thursday, May 28, 2015, Judge Robert Jones of the Federal District Court in Reno issued rulings rejecting every petition and claim before him concerning the Walker River, including efforts to deliver more water to Walker Lake. Advocates for Walker Lake welcomed this development to finally address the central merits of these claims, even though Judge Jones’s rulings were adverse. “We have been trying to get the court to issue a ruling on substance of our claim for Walker Lake for years,” said Glenn Bunch, President of the Walker Lake Working Group. “And even though the rulings were negative, we are happy to finally get the judge to address the issue so we can take it up on appeal,” Bunch continued.
The Walker Lake Working Group and Mineral County say they will appeal Judge Jones’s rulings to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which covers Nevada and California along with several other states. “In our view these rulings are – as expected – plainly erroneous, and we believe the court of appeals will reverse them and clarify the law so that we finally can obtain the required remedy for Walker Lake,” said Simeon Herskovits, of Advocates for Community and Environment, the lawyers representing the Walker Lake Working Group and Mineral County.
- Simeon Herskovits
Walker Basin Restoration Program Video:
Featuring Darren Hamrey
Lake Level in 2006: 3,933 Lake Level in 1996: 3,944
Lake Level in 1986: 3,972 Lake Level in 1976: 3,966
Lake Level in 1966: 3,973 Lake Level in 1956: 3,990
Lake Level in 1946: 4,013 Lake Level in 1936: 4,025
Lake Level in 1926: 4,055 Lake Level in 1916: 4,068
Cliff House Motel 1984