Lake Tahoe Water Wars, Part I

Running logs down Truckee River. | Courtesy North Lake Tahoe Historical Society

After his short stint in Nevada Territory writing for the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise, humorist Mark Twain was credited with saying, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.” The quote hasn’t been verified, but it fits Twain’s clever wit and sharp sense of observation.

Read Part II.

Water is indeed the most precious natural resource in the arid West and from that perspective it should come as no surprise that water-rights issues on Lake Tahoe and Truckee River have been at the center of negotiation and controversy since pioneers first settled the region.

Only 20 years after topographical engineer John C. Frémont first saw Lake Tahoe in 1844, there were already plenty of entrepreneurs scheming how to exploit the waters of this spectacular mountain lake. The most ambitious of these early diversion plans included transporting water to Carson City and Virginia City, Nev.; to the gold diggings of western Placer County and even to San Francisco. Although these mammoth public-works projects failed to gain sufficient popular, political and economic support, by the early 20th Century Lake Tahoe had been tapped as the primary reservoir for irrigation and municipal water use in western Nevada.

In 1870, engineer Alexis von Schmidt oversaw construction of a small dam a short distance below the headwaters of the Truckee River (Lake Tahoe’s only outlet) to create water storage for his proposed grand aqueduct to San Francisco. The rock-filled timber-crib dam raised the level of the lake, but Von Schmidt’s project fizzled due to suspicion of its financial cost by San Francisco residents, as well as fierce local resistance in Truckee and particularly by western Nevada. Meanwhile the California legislature authorized the Donner Boom and Logging Company, a subsidiary of the Central Pacific Railroad, to take control of the dam. The company regulated, for a fee, water flow to float logs to the sawmills in Truckee and later for power generation.

The Tahoe dam was trouble from the start. Water impounded for log fluming caused flooding along shoreline owned by wealthy and politically influential, lakefront property owners. The original dam was later enlarged when Truckee River General Electric Company acquired ownership to provide a steady, year-round water source for hydroelectric power plants along the river. Based on this seemingly reliable and inexpensive energy source, various entrepreneurs built processing and manufacturing plants along the Truckee River.

To maintain a year-round minimum flow, the company raised water levels in the Tahoe Basin, again drawing heated protests from lakeshore owners complaining about soil erosion and the impact on their piers, boathouses and beaches. Ongoing shoreline erosion due to enhanced water levels is still a major issue at Lake Tahoe since sediment loading into the lake introduces nutrients that feed and algae that reduces water clarity.

Bi-state bickering over the allocation of Lake Tahoe water continued until 1890 when a well-connected attorney and soon-to-be congressman Francis G. Newlands proposed a network of reservoirs in the Sierra to serve the future development of western Nevada. According to Newlands, Tahoe afforded the “cheapest reservoir space in the West.” Newlands’ radical ideas and bold rhetoric concerning the appropriation of Lake Tahoe water for agricultural expansion in Nevada — the driest state in the nation — upset California residents and politicians.

Immediately after his election to the U.S. Senate, Newlands sponsored a measure through which the federal government would provide water for irrigation in arid regions throughout the West. President William McKinley had not supported the proposal, but after his assassination in September 1901, vice president Teddy Roosevelt took over.

Roosevelt liked the idea and signaled his approval for the legislation. Shortly after, he signed the 1902 Reclamation Act. Since Sen. Newlands had crafted the bill, his district was rewarded with the first reclamation project. This bi-state venture was the precursor to future western water storage mega-projects like the Hoover, Glen Canyon and Oroville dams. In 1903, the Department of the Interior notified California and Nevada officials that the federal government would be assuming the right to control the water stored in Lake Tahoe behind the dam. Sen. Newlands had upped the ante in the battle over Tahoe water.

In 1903, the first major effort under the Reclamation Act, the Federal Newlands Reclamation Project, broke ground in western Nevada with the goal of transforming Lahontan Valley desert into farmland. The area receives about 4 inches of precipitation annually. By 1905, the Derby Diversion Dam was in place east of Reno diverting Truckee River water into a 32-mile-long canal that nourished newly established farms near Fallon in the Lahontan Valley and supplemented flow in the lower Carson River. Despite the massive irrigation project, everyone was assured that there would be plenty of water available for all users on the Truckee River system.

Unfortunately, the engineers who planned the Newlands Irrigation Project miscalculated and overestimated the reliability of the Truckee River water supply. Highly erratic periods of precipitation and river flows combined with limited upstream storage failed to accommodate extreme periods of drought. Angry farmers who had been lured to the project rebelled over water shortages during the growing season. To address concerns by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Tribe located downstream of the Derby Dam, a U.S. government treaty promised the Paiute Indians enough water to maintain their historic fishery at the mouth of the river. Despite these assurances, the Derby Dam cut water flow into Pyramid Lake by half.

By 1967, Pyramid Lake had dropped 87 feet, which prevented the endangered cui-ui fish and threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout from migrating upstream to spawn. Falling water levels, increased salinity and upstream pollution from the Floriston paper mill nearly destroyed the tribe’s vital fishery.

Ironically, while lakes and wetlands in Western Nevada were drying up, lakefront owners at Lake Tahoe were once again protesting that excessively high-water levels behind the dam were impacting property values and their business interests. To increase their political clout, in 1913 a group of prominent landowners created the Lake Tahoe Protection Association to preserve the lake’s beauty and ecology, while simultaneously securing their vested interests.

The epic winter of 1906-07 dumped an all-time record of 73.5 feet of snow on the Tahoe Sierra. The deep snowpack melted rapidly when torrential rain soaked the region in late February and March. Due to dangerously high-water levels behind the dam, the power company released too much water, which cut short the amount available for Nevada farmers later in that summer’s growing season. Something needed to be done.

Read Part II in the next edition and at Click on History under the Explore Tahoe menu.