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Cover Story

Walker Lake on the brink

By John Trent

The outlook for Walker Lake is not promising. Without a wet winter, the desert lake located near Hawthorne faces a death sentence. Due to a combination of drought and irrigation overallocation on the lake's primary source, the Walker River, the lake has lost 80 percent of its volume and dropped more than 140 feet during the past century. Without more water, Walker's saline levels will rise above 13,000 parts per million, effectively killing its fishery.
The following story details efforts by university educators and researchers to find a workable solution for all of the disparate groups involved in the issue, from environmentalists who wish to save the lake to the agricultural interests upstream whose livelihood also depends on the most precious of all resources in the West — water.

If Walker Lake could speak, it would probably ask, first and foremost, "Why?"

Why, over the last century, has this desert lake located near Hawthorne lost 80 percent of its volume and dropped more than 140 feet?

Why are its saline levels so dangerously high that it is only a matter of one, or perhaps two dry winters, before the total dissolved solids (TDS) in the lake will finally exceed 13,000 parts per million — signaling the end of reproduction of the tui chub fish and the end of the Lahontan cutthroat trout?

Why will the ranks of only six terminal fresh water lakes in the world soon be reduced by one, once Walker becomes a "dead" lake?

"It's a tricky issue, one where I'm not so sure if placing blame will do you any good," admits Staci Emm, program officer for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension who grew up on the nearby Walker River Paiute Indian Reservation. "Until stakeholders find the right balance — a balance between the environment, the environmentalists and the agriculture producers — the issue isn't going to be solved.

"With Walker Lake, you need to realize that yes, this is a beautiful lake and that it's an important resource. But you also need to realize that you have people living upstream from it who are in danger of having their agricultural livelihood wiped out."

Then Emm pauses, thinking about what is at stake. Her grandfather, her father, and her uncles have produced agriculture in the Walker River Basin for nearly a century. Yet Emm has worked to remind the tribes of their ancestral dependence on fish taken from Walker's emerald waters. One of her Cooperative Extension projects, in fact, has been to bring large fish tanks into the classrooms of reservation schools, to show native youngsters how to coax and cajole a new generation of Lahontan cutthroat trout from eggs.

"Only time will tell," Emm says finally. "This is an extremely pivotal moment for the Walker River Basin's future. The Walker River Basin could set the stage in the future for hundreds of other cases just like it, throughout all of the western U.S."

The Science

Walker Lake's problem is easily explained. On a bright, crisp fall day on the University of Nevada campus, biology professor Peter Brussard leans back in his chair, props up a pair of brown cowboy boots on a worn conference table, and begins the process of telling why the lake is dying.

"Walker Lake's major problem, as is the major problem with every western water-driven ecosystem, is that it fluctuates by an order of magnitude in terms of its input," Brussard says. "When it's a high-precipitation year, boy, there's plenty of water for everybody. And when it's a low-precipitation year, there isn't any water for anything."

Brussard knows his science as well as anyone on the Nevada campus. Ruddy-faced from decades spent in the field as one of the country's leading conservation biologists, and an unrepentant jeans wearer, Brussard possesses a rare accessibility. He speaks in plain, easily understood and candid words, his firm voice marching equally between impassioned advocate and detached observer.

Brussard pulls out a white binder, full of research data produced by the late Nevada biology professor Gary Vinyard and him.

"This is it in a nutshell," Brussard says, pointing.

According to Brussard and Vinyard's projections:

  • 80,000 acre feet of water per year are needed to postpone the collapse of the current ecosystem for about 25 years; 90,000 will postpone it for perhaps 50 years.
  • For the situation to improve (i.e., for TDS levels to decrease), flows of 120,000 to 130,000 or more acre feet per year will be required.
  • During a normal water year only 84 percent of the agricultural water rights upstream of the Walker Lake on the Walker River can be satisfied; a snowpack of 120 percent of normal is required to provide the full allocation of upstream water rights.

"Certainly it's an over-allocated resource in terms of water rights," Brussard says. "But, there have been some farmers and ranchers who have put in some more efficient irrigation systems. But is it enough? It seems to me the solution to this is to buy junior or even senior water rights and then make available some low-cost loans to people to be able to make conservative use of their irrigation water."

Brussard, who grew up in Reno, has vivid memories of how the lake once looked when he was a young boy — "Amazingly big and blue," he remembers. "My mother grew up in Tonopah, so when we drove to Tonopah to see her family, it was quite a bit higher. From the backseat of our 1940 Oldsmobile, it was something you always looked forward to seeing."

He lets his hopeful thought hang in the air for the moment, then quickly punctures it with a smile mixed with irony and frustration.

"But of course, we live in a state that seems largely unable to recognize limits — limits on population growth, or limits on water to support it," he says, his smile receding. "We're in a complete set of denial on that one. While there could be a solution to Walker Lake within the context of this rapidly — or even dramatically — fluctuating environment, it's going to require a change in mindset."

Changing the mindset of the people

Jerry Buk, director for Cooperative Extension's Central and Northeast Area, chuckles when asked about the handshake of Loretta Singletary, associate professor and educator for Cooperative Extension.

A feeble overgeneralization about the value of a solid handshake in rural Nevada has Buk shaking his head — though he understands what is meant.

"Well, I don't know about Loretta's handshake," he says. "But I can tell you that she's a good hand. Loretta's believable. She does not wear her personal prejudices on her sleeve. She's a gentle person and she's not a hard sell. I think the people involved in Walker Lake really do appreciate that about her."

Buk says Singletary, who has worked in Yerington since 1997, has worked diligently and effectively in bringing the many different groups with a stake in Walker Lake's future to the table. Dialogue was scant or non-existent before Singletary began her work.

"She has found some success in getting people to look at their issues without considering winning or losing," Buk says. "She's gotten them to simply look at water — getting more of it into the lake, keeping enough of it in the communities that need water, and maintaining a healthy riparian along the river."

Singletary, just as Brussard has his elemental and inviting way in describing science, is equally adept at explaining her methods of what is called "interest-based negotiation." Singletary is a friendly woman, her features fine and European. Her mother, Agnes, an artist, was originally from Estonia. And there is something both faithfully earthy and contemplatively elegant about Singletary — an economist and geographer by trade — all of which she has used to her advantage in her work with Walker Lake.

The central notion behind her approach, which was recognized by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt in 1999 for its effectiveness, is something called collaborative-based programming to manage conflict, which has in turn led to an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process. The formal description seems too formal, however, for Singletary, a single mother of two sons. She is a sensitive and nurturing person, one who would often lie awake at night following her many meetings, fretting over whether she had given enough time to the tribe, or to the townspeople, or to the tackle-and-lure crowd bent on saving a once great fishery.

To Singletary, her work with the Walker River Basin Advisory Committee (comprised of eight individuals, two members from each of the four geographic sections representing interests from the headwaters of the Walker River to the terminus at Walker Lake) conjures up the notion of collaborative empathy — rivals focused not on destroying each other, but rather, understanding what is being said. Singletary has held meetings, public forums and field tours — drawing anywhere from 25 to 100 people, all interested in discussing Walker Lake's future.

"I did a survey, about a year ago, of all of the participants in our program," says Singletary, whose pleasant voice retains the lilt of her native South Carolina. "The people became more aware of the conflict. They were able to better interact with others involved in the conflict. These are all positive things.

"I would like to think our meetings opened people's minds and hearts to the possibility of conversation."

The Lake

Richard Westheimer, 70, a retiree from San Jose, Calif., has been camped on the shore of Walker Lake for the better part of 10 days.

"And not a single bite," says the former Air Force man. "But what a beautiful lake. It's a great help to this area, all of the tourists who come here to fish and look at the wildlife. It would be a shame if it were to die."

Weistheimer relaxes in a foldout chair as heavy orange machinery nearby dredges the area around a boat ramp at Sportsman's Beach. The backhoe's bucket, like the face of a serpent, drips with sand and water, fighting for a toehold between the rapidly receding water and the rapidly expanding gray beach.

"If we don't get water soon," says Terry Hansen, watching the struggle of machinery against the inevitable, deathly tug of drought, "it's not going to matter how much they dig around the boat ramps. I have a lot of memories out on that water, and they're disappearing as quickly as the water is."

Hansen, 58, a three-tour Vietnam veteran, has a face of rough country road. The creases and lines are etched deep and hard into his weathered skin. He has lived on the lake his entire life, catching his first fish at age 9. His living comes from the lake, as he has his own lure tying business. He produces beautiful, colorful 2-ounce, 60-plus lead lures (used for 60 feet or better of water) of green and white and black and orange, made by hand, mimicking mackinaw and other fish who may or may not inhabit the waters of Walker Lake in the not-so-distant future.

"It's really, really sad to think of this place and what it once was," Hansen says. "In my lifetime, we used to pull hundreds and hundreds of fish out of this lake. We saw thousands of ducks and loons and pelicans. I caught a 15-pound cutthroat when I was a boy — and that wasn't uncommon. This year alone, fishing every day, I've caught maybe eight fish over the 5-pound bracket."

Hansen takes a long drag from his Basic cigarette. With his left hand, he flicks ashes onto the boat ramp, then runs his right hand across his dry lips. He stares wistfully for a moment, hoping to see the lake of his youth. Instead, he hears the droning of the dredging as the sun angles behind the mountains.

It is late, time to go, and Hansen realizes this.

"That 15-pounder I caught as a boy," he says, staring at the slowly dying waters, "I'd trade that big fish in a heartbeat to have all of the fish back. What if that's the last big fish anyone will ever remember coming out of this lake?"


Walker Lake is the terminus for the Walker River watershed. It supports fish and hundreds of thousands of breeding and migrating water birds, including the spring and fall visits from 1,400 common loons — the largest known congregation west of the Mississippi.

Walker Lake’s existence spans millions of years. Along with Pyramid Lake in northwest Nevada and Mono Lake in eastern California, Walker is a remnant of the Pleistocene-era Lake Lahontan.

The Walker River is one of three major rivers draining the east slopes of the Sierra Nevada, supporting riparian, wetland and desert lake ecosystems.

More than 11,000 years ago when Native Americans inhabited the Walker Lake basin, flows to Walker Lake were estimated at 250,000 to 300,000 acre-feet of water per year (an acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough to cover a football field in one foot of water).

By 1890, the first diversion ditch on the Walker River was constructed.

By the 1960s, the Sacramento Perch fishery reached its tolerance level for dissolved salts and died out along with commercially fished carp.

Source: Walker Lake Working Group

For more information about the lake, visit


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