Whisky is for Drinking: Water is for Fighting Over


With most resorts now closed for the season, it’s a good time to look back at the highly unusual 2013 winter. December started off wet when a media-dubbed California Superstorm dumped significant amounts of rain at elevations below 7,000’ early in the month.

Heavy, wet snow fell on the upper slopes of Tahoe resorts and laid down a healthy base for the upcoming ski season. Several weeks later, during the Christmas-New Year holiday vacation, a series of cold, powerful storms pounded the region with heavy snow. By New Year’s Day, Squaw Valley’s upper slopes had picked up nearly 21’ of snow. And, even the lower mountain, which had lost much of its base during the early December rain event, had received another 12’ of snow. It was the best start to a winter since the epic 2011 season, which ranks as the ninth snowiest of record at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory.

But, then the storm door slammed shut and from January to April the Pacific weather systems detoured around the Tahoe Sierra. It was an unprecedented dry spell for the Tahoe-Truckee region. Tahoe City received only 2.68” of water during the period — statistically the wettest time of year that averages more than 16” of precipitation — which set a new record as the driest three-month stretch since measurements began in 1910.

As of mid-April, Randall Osterhuber at the Snow Lab has measured only 17.3’ of snow, which currently ranks as the fifth least snowiest winter there since 1878. Lake Tahoe snowpack conditions are at 52 percent of average. Fortunately, seasonal precipitation in the Tahoe Basin is about 84 percent of average, and water storage in Lake Tahoe is 93 percent of normal. Big Blue’s water elevation currently stands at 6,226’ and is expected to rise more than half a foot more. Reservoir storage in the Truckee River Basin is a healthy 106 percent of average, but the stream flow forecast for the Truckee River this summer is only 46 percent of average at the gaging station at Farad.

Dry winters like 2013 give Sierra water managers fits as they try to fulfill deliveries to downstream water rights holders. And, coming on the heels of a similarly dry winter in 2012 only makes the job more challenging. Lake Tahoe is a reservoir controlled by the dam at Tahoe City with a maximum water storage equal to 6 feet and 1 inch. There is a federal limit on the level of the lake so that it may not exceed 6,229.1’ in elevation, but when the lake drops to 6,223’, no more surface water can feed into the Truckee River.

Since construction of the Lake Tahoe Dam by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the early 20th century, yearly water levels have fallen below the natural rim about 20 percent of the time. Much of the water stored in Lake Tahoe is controlled by downstream entities in Nevada. Water rights issues are especially complicated between California and Nevada by the fact that much of the Silver State’s water supply comes from across the state line on the western border. This requires storage reservoirs to be built in California, but the water used to irrigate Nevada.

With the development of the Newlands Irrigation District in western Nevada during the early part of the 20th century, the Bureau of Reclamation needed water to supply farmers and it made an initial claim for rights to water stored in Lake Tahoe. Over time, the feds built the Tahoe Dam and gained some control of reservoir operations much to the chagrin of lakeshore property owners and other local business interests. It wasn’t long before controversy flared over a 1912 effort by the Bureau of Reclamation and a Nevada power company that owned land adjacent to the Tahoe Dam to dredge the Truckee River channel and to cut down the lake’s rim to release more water. Tahoe residents were furious, but violence was averted when lakeshore property owners obtained a court injunction to block the project.

Conflicting interests and ongoing litigation between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Nevada power company were resolved in 1915 with a federal court consent decree known as the Truckee River General Electric Decree. This decree granted the feds an easement to operate Lake Tahoe Dam and to use surrounding property owned by the power company. It also required the Bureau to operate the dam to provide certain year-round flow rates, measured at a stream gage at Floriston near the state line, to support hydro-power generation. The decree quantified Tahoe reservoir operations, but trouble continued.

During a severe drought in the late 1920s and early 1930s the Truckee River dried up. In 1924, a group of Truckee Meadows farmers threatened to dynamite the rim of the lake to allow water out. The threats jump-started a new series of sporadic negotiations among Tahoe lakeshore property owner’s associations, business groups, both state governments and the federal government, but no solutions to the ongoing water war were forthcoming. In 1930, Nevada agricultural interests attempted to dig a trench past the Tahoe Dam in order to drain off the lake. A steam shovel escorted by a Reno police force was deployed to the power company’s land adjacent to the dam and a diversion ditch begun. Local sheriff’s representatives formed a posse to prevent the ditch digging until a judge ordered an injunction to halt the operation. The steam shovel was shut down and the trench backfilled.

The drought was so severe, however, that Nevada farmers threatened crop damage suits against Tahoe property owners. The legal maneuvering coerced shoreline interests to allow pumping the lake when it fell below its rim. For four years, large pumps were installed to suck water out of Tahoe and dump it into the Truckee River. During that drought, nearly 118,000 acre-feet of water were pumped out of Lake Tahoe. These battles are part of the legacy of the Tahoe-Nevada water wars. As someone once said (not Mark Twain), in the West, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”


Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.