By Benjamin Spillman
People driving between Reno and Las Vegas probably won’t notice anything unusual as they pass Walker Lake, located at the base of Nevada’s Wassuk Range in one of the least-populous counties in the United States.
But people who waited decades yearning for the lake to recover from its human-driven death spiral are marking a historic milestone.
On July 5, for the first time since Europeans settled the remote and scenic Walker Basin, there’s water flowing through the Walker River exclusively for the benefit of the lake’s fish and wildlife.
“It’s kind of a historical moment,” said Jeff Bryant, executive director of the Walker Basin Conservancy.
That’s because from 1936 until April 16, it was illegal for the federal water master, or anyone else, to move water through the Walker River for anything other than nourishing crops or cattle.
The Walker River Decree that established those restrictions didn’t include the health of fish, wildlife or people at Walker Lake among “beneficial uses” of Walker River water.
The result was that for 83 years, the only time river water flowed into the lake was when the Sierra Nevada winter produced so much snow at the headwaters farmers and ranchers in the valleys below couldn’t use it all.
That changed July 1 when a staffer at the Walker Basin Conservancy placed a water order with the federal water master who authorized an additional 7.75 cubic feet of water per second to pass through Bridgeport and Topaz reservoirs for the sole purpose of replenishing the lake.
“We are trying to make the river reliable again,” Bryant said. “It is something we talked about since I was a 10-year-old kid.”
For the past 150 years, Walker Lake’s story was a story of two vital signs moving in the wrong direction.
Since 1868, the lake’s water level has been going down while the concentration of total dissolved solids went up.
That’s because the late 1800s is when newly arrived settlers began diverting Walker River flows mostly to power economic growth on farms and ranches in Nevada’s Smith and Mason valleys.
The diversions were great for raising cattle and crops along the river. But they were devastating for fish, wildlife and wetlands at the lake, which lost a reliable source of inflows.
“It was a real lifeline for that lake,” Bryant said of the river.
Walker Lake, like Pyramid Lake northeast of Reno, is what’s known as a desert terminus, or terminal, lake. That means it’s located at a low point in a desert basin and has no natural outflows besides evaporation.
Terminus lakes can be healthy, vibrant places as long as they have steady inflows. The problems happen when those inflows don’t arrive.
When water evaporates, the water vapor floats off into the air and the solid material gets left behind.
When there aren’t enough inflows to keep up with evaporation, the solid material concentrates and diminishes water quality.
As Walker Lake declined by about 150 feet from 1868 to 2018, the concentration of dissolved solids tripled.
The result was a slow, depressing decline in fish and bird populations accompanied by a decline in the overall aesthetics and vibe of the lake itself.
Bryant, 39, grew up in nearby Hawthorne, Nevada and watched as once-bustling bait shops, marinas and lakeside parks withered and died. Around 2011, the fishery, for all intents and purposes, finally blinked out.
“It was really hard to watch,” he said. “It was incredibly depressing, the fishery finally died.”
Bryant and others in Hawthorne were far from the only people harmed by Walker Lake’s demise.
It also hit hard the people of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, who have been in the basin for time immemorial.
The Paiute people were so intertwined with the lake they were referred to in their native language as Agai Dicutta, or trout eaters, because they caught huge trout from the lake.
“Our portion is badly drying up and receding,” Tribal Chairman Amber Torres said. “We would love to see it replenished.”
The additional water flowing to Walker Lake is just a fraction of what it’s going to take to restore it to vibrancy.
And it’s taken more than 30 years, tens of millions of dollars and acts of Congress just to get to that point.
When Bryant was growing up, the work was barely getting started, in large part due to the interest of a newly elected U.S. senator from Nevada.
In an interview with the Reno Gazette Journal, former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he first set eyes on Walker Lake around 1968 when he was a new member of the Nevada Assembly. The sight of the lake glistening in the desert stuck with Reid and after he was elected to the Senate he ushered into law the Desert Terminal Lakes Act in 2002.
The original law and subsequent versions led to around $300 million in funding for acquiring water rights and other actions to revive the lakes and their watersheds. A 2009 version established the Walker Basin Restoration Program, which eventually turned over to the Walker Basin Conservancy.
Through the legislation, the organizations have spent more than $80 million buying water rights sufficient to deliver water to the lake at 108 cubic feet (3,058 liters) per second, which represents about 44 percent of the water needed to restore the lake’s fishery.
The money from Congress helped purchase water rights from farmers and ranchers. But that wasn’t enough to get additional water into the lake.
As long as the Walker River Decree didn’t include in-stream flows to the lake as a beneficial use, there was no legal way to shift the water from agriculture to restoration.
The Fish and Wildlife Foundation filed its first change application to do just that in 2011.
It took eight years of legal wrangling in federal court before the application was approved and the decree was amended to include in-stream flows.
Although the application only covers about 7 percent of the water rights the Conservancy controls, Bryant is hopeful it sets a precedent that speeds up the change application process for the remaining rights.
“This is a turnaround point,” Bryant said. Now, “The lake has a water right.”
More water and fish should also help bring back birds and make the lake more attractive to people for fishing, boating and swimming.
“It is one of the great restoration stories of the West if we can pull it off,” Bryant said.