Just upstream from Fanny Bridge sits the Lake Tahoe Dam. Since 1910, it has controlled how much water leaves Lake Tahoe and eventually makes its way through Reno to Pyramid Lake. The person who operates the machinery to make the water flow is the gatekeeper. For the past 26 years, that gatekeeper has been John Sutter.
Sutter was born and raised in the Bay Area, and after serving in the National Guard and Air Force Reserves he worked for Safeway in the Bay Area. In 1974, a Safeway position opened up in Truckee and he was able to move to the mountains. Later, he helped open the Tahoe City Safeway store, and began working construction in 1981. In 1990, he received his contractor’s and real estate licenses, and has been a real estate agent in Tahoe City ever since, now with Sierra Sotheby’s International Real Estate.
“It’s the best job at Tahoe. You get to get up early and see the lake every morning. Whether it’s a gorgeous day or a snowy day. I’m outside most of the time in this beautiful place.”
It was in 1990 that he also took on the part-time job that would become his life passion as the gatekeeper. At the time, the dam was controlled by the Truckee Carson Irrigation District in Fallon, Nev. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation assumed control in 2000, and he has worked for them ever since.
The Lake Tahoe Dam on the Truckee River in Tahoe City. | Tim Hauseman
The first thing you need to know about a gatekeeper is that he is the information gatherer and equipment operator, not the decision maker. It is the federal water master in Reno that has the task of figuring out how much water to let out of the lake and when. The water master must follow a complicated set of rules and court degrees that govern how he makes decisions.
“Every morning I go to the Coast Guard Station and check the lake level. Then I go down to the (United States Geological Survey) gauge downstream and measure the discharge of the Truckee River. Finally, I go to the (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather station to get the high and low temperatures, and I call all that information into the water master at 8 a.m.,” says Sutter.
“The only decision I make is what gates to open. It used to be we would open all of the gates a little bit to meet the desired cfs (cubic feet per second), but then I noticed kids playing near the gates on the edge so my suggestion was we start opening gates from the center outward because it is safer,” he explains.
During Sutter’s 26 years of service there were two major events that stood out, and they were just a few years apart. The drought of the early 1990s and the flood of 1997. From late 1990 through 1993, the lake never rose above the rim of the lake. At the end of 1992, it was a foot below the rim. It briefly rose above the rim to flow into the Truckee again in 1994, then dropped back down below the rim in 1995.
Just two years later, the problem had reversed and the lake level had risen 4 feet and was at 6,226 feet. Then came the events of late December 1996 and January 1997. In December, I remember being stuck in my house in Alpine Peaks for several days as we received more than 10 feet of snow. We were pretty dang stoked about what an awesome ski season this was going to be. Then, it started to rain. The Pineapple Express brought in a deluge of rain for days. The result was a catastrophic flood.
“The 1997 flood was big,” Sutter says. “I was up measuring the lake every two hours, even at night. I had all 17 gates open. Discharging 2,620 cubic feet per second. The most we’ve ever discharged. And it still came a few inches above the legal limit.”
While the federal water master was directing Sutter to do his job and protect the resources around Lake Tahoe, the affect of all that water was devastating to those along the Truckee River and in Reno. When all the gates were open Sutter said that he noticed the strangest thing: “With that much water going through you could hear a pin drop. It was the quietest discharge I’ve ever experienced,” he says.
While Sutter started as a part-time employee, seven years ago he went full time. In addition to operating the Lake Tahoe dam, now he can be called in to operate the dams at Prosser and Stampede, the power plant at Stampede, as well as the Derby Dam and Marble Bluff dam near Pyramid Lake. In addition to operating the dams, he also helps with maintenance, painting and taking care of the Marble Bluff fish facility.
“It is all encompassing. There is always something to do,” says Sutter. “It’s the best job at Tahoe. You get to get up early and see the lake every morning. Whether it’s a gorgeous day or a snowy day. I’m outside most of the time in this beautiful place. And, you get to see both the high desert and the mountains.”
Sutter feels, however, that when he retires he may be the last person to do it. “They will automate in the future. It will be all computerized,” he says.
At one time, the gatekeeper lived in the gatekeeper’s cabin next to the dam, so he could be close to the action. But with the advent of computer technology, the last several gatekeepers have been allowed to live elsewhere. It seems like it would still be nice to have someone with the knowledge and experience Sutter has, watching over this important place where the lake and the river meet.
For more information about water storage in Lake Tahoe and how the Truckee River is operated, visit tmwastorage.com.
Weather historian Mark McLaughlin looks at the 1997 flood