Water barely trickling into Truckee River
TAHOE CITY — It is only slightly ironic that National Water Monitoring Day has come and gone and yet there’s hardly any water in the Truckee River to monitor. With the water level of Truckee and Lake Tahoe approaching record lows, some observers are concerned about future water supply for the region. Nevertheless, in honor of National Water Monitoring Day and the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Geological Survey and Sierra Watershed Education Partnership put on special programs during the last two weeks to educate Tahoe area teachers and students about water quality. Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River are noticeably low. According to Gerald Rockwell, USGS field office chief for Carnelian Bay, the lake is currently three-tenths of a foot above the natural rim. “Right now the dam serves no purpose. All the gates are open,” said Rockwell. “The natural rim is controlling the flow of water.” Rockwell attributes the low water level to three consecutive years of modest precipitation. Even though there appeared to be a lot of snow last winter, it was only 80-85 percent of average snowfall, he said. The highest recorded peak for the Truckee River was in January 1997, when the river was flowing at 2,690 cubic feet per second. Average flow for October is 181 cubic feet per second. Today, the Truckee is flowing at 17 cubic feet per second. Nevertheless, the river has been lower before. In the early 1990s it went completely dry due to drought in the late 1980s. If the flow of the Truckee River dries up anymore, it could have dire consequences for downstream communities. “The Reno/Sparks area relies heavily on water from the Truckee. They would have to get their water somewhere else or pump wells, which is more expensive,” Rockwell said. The Federal Watermaster’s Office in Reno is making up the difference by taking water from the Boca Reservoir. However, Federal Watermaster Gary Stone says that without future rain, Boca will be empty and Lake Tahoe will be at its natural rim by December. “It’s a matter of great concern for me,” said Stone. “(The amount of water) totally depends on next winter.” While Reno/Sparks has enough water to get through the winter, its water supply could be in danger next summer if there isn’t a big winter, according to Stone. In cooperation with the California Department of Water Resources, the USGS has been operating a stream monitoring station along the Truckee River in Tahoe City since 1957, although data has been collected on the site since 1895 and a continuous data recorder was installed in 1946. The stream gauge allows the USGS to monitor the quantity and quality of water leaving the lake, water and air temperature, precipitation, and conductivity (salts and dissolved solids). The information is used to provide flood warning, water supply forecasting, and water quality monitoring to more than 15 federal, state, and local agencies. The gauge records air temperature and precipitation every 15 minutes while water temperature and conductivity is recorded every hour. The data is transmitted by satellite to a database every four hours, which is available two minutes later on the USGS Web site (www.usgs.gov). The information is also sent to the Washoe County Flood Warning Center three times a day, unless there is a flood, in which case the data is transmitted continuously. Additionally, USGS staff takes measurements from the Truckee River once a month for water supply forecasting.