Known worldwide for its stunning beauty, Lake Tahoe has also been coveted for its clean, precious water. For decades California-based entrepreneurs had gazed longingly at Big Blue’s deep reserves despite its distance from major population centers in the Golden State. But Nevada’s claim to the water stymied every effort to tap the lake.
In that regard Lake Tahoe dodged a bullet because rapidly growing San Francisco was looking for a large mountain reservoir to supply the city. Tahoe may have been out of their reach, but spectacular Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park was not. Environmentalist John Muir was key to the establishment of the park and its protection from development and exploitation. For 12 years Muir and his Sierra Club fought passionately against congressional approval of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir but lost in the end.
Wealthy land developer Francis Griffith Newlands’ idea of conservation was quite different than Muir’s. Newlands viewed Lake Tahoe through a utilitarian lens and his sentiments became crystal clear in 1890 when he told opponents: “Tahoe afforded the cheapest reservoir space known in the west.”
He proposed a network of reservoirs in the Tahoe Sierra to provide irrigation water and hydroelectricity for the future development of Nevada. Newlands was elected congressman of Nevada (1892-1902), and then U.S. Senator (1903-1917). He was instrumental in getting the 1902 Reclamation Act passed and in convincing businessmen and politicians in the Silver State to approve the federal development of water assets in Lake Tahoe and the Carson and Truckee river systems. The idea had been germinating for many years, but now work progressed rapidly on the Truckee Carson Irrigation Project.
Prior review by engineers had determined that Churchill County was the best location for federal irrigation development (east of Reno and Carson City) because most land in Carson Valley and the Truckee Meadows was privately owned and therefore loaded with costly litigation. The Lake Tahoe Basin would be utilized as the principle reservoir, where 732,000 acre-feet of water would be stored behind a 6-foot dam and regulated by the government primarily to serve Nevada municipal and irrigation interests. (One acre-foot of water covers a football field to a depth of 12 inches.)
Streamflow and storage regulations would eventually be codified in the 1935 Truckee River Operating Agreement, an arrangement that has been modified, but still controls water levels at Lake Tahoe and flows in the Truckee River. The exceptional demands placed on the Truckee River drainage have resulted in one of the most litigated and complex operations of any river system in the United States. Water may flow uphill to money, but it doesn’t come cheap.
In 1905, the Truckee River diversion dam — Derby Dam — was built between Reno and Pyramid Lake, a Paiute Indian Reservation and terminus of the Truckee River. At 31 feet high it took 500 men to construct it. At the same time, the 32-mile long Truckee Canal was dug to take the diverted Truckee River water south to the Carson River. Using primitive excavation equipment, it took more than 1,000 men two years to complete. The canal has a maximum carrying capacity of 1,500 cubic feet per second — about 3,000 acre-feet of Truckee River water per day.
Lahontan Dam and reservoir were then constructed near the Carson River to store water from the river, as well as the inflow delivered by the Truckee Canal. Some irrigation water from the Truckee Canal is delivered directly to farms that it passes on the way to Lahontan Reservoir. Lake Tahoe was next on the list. Modernization and enlargement of the Tahoe Dam was hung up in court for years, but the 17-gate concrete structure was finally completed in 1913. This elaborate manipulation of water volume was unprecedented in the west at that time, even surpassing expansive water works built during the California Gold Rush.
As an operational system, Truckee-Carson Irrigation Project basically diverts water from the Truckee and Carson rivers, transports it to the Lahontan Dam and a medley of other smaller reservoirs for storage, before transferring the vital resource via ditches deep into Churchill County in order to grow specialty melons and high-grade alfalfa. The focus point for much of the irrigation is around Fallon, Nev., 60 miles from the Sierra snowpack that makes it all possible. As Newlands envisioned with the Reclamation Act, Tahoe Sierra water does make the desert bloom, but at what cost?
The average annual precipitation in Churchill County is less than 5 inches — it ranks among the driest regions in the United States. Some of the water-intensive alfalfa is sold to ranchers in California and Asia, but most of it is fed to thousands of dairy cows raised locally. It’s the perfect feed for the cows because it’s rich in nutrients. Dairy cows are raised to produce milk, not beef, and these Churchill County herds generate more than 1.5 million pounds of milk a day in what used to be inhospitable desert country.
In 2014, a $90-million powdered-milk processing plant opened in Fallon. The state-of-the-art plant can produce four different milk powders that are packed in 50-pound bags. The powders can be used to make infant formula, yogurt, cheese and ice cream and as a nutritional additive in candy bars and beverages. Milk is also used in the bakery and confectionary industries. A strong selling point for the end product is that due to sophisticated processing, the dehydrated milk powder has a shelf life of two years. The massive complex was built solely for export to the global market, especially China where demand for high-quality dairy imports is soaring.
To meet the demand, one mega-dairy operation moved in from California with more than 8,000 cows. Previous Nevada dairies were mostly small, family-owned businesses. Large-scale animal husbandry is a dirty business — the animals produce vast amounts of solid and liquid waste. That single herd of 8,000 that moved into Smith Valley generates more than 30,000 tons of manure a year. Nevada officials aggressively courted the dehydration operation with generous tax incentives, but the region will struggle to exponentially increase its milk production.
Nevada is the nation’s driest state and winter precipitation and runoff from the Tahoe Sierra is erratic. Droughts are common and may get more intense with climate change. Plans to irrigate more land to grow more alfalfa, while increasing the number of cows and feeding them into the future is fraught with risk.