Runoff to fill Lake Tahoe |

Runoff to fill Lake Tahoe

Patrick McCartney

Fed by El Nino’s abundant snowfall, this year’s Tahoe Basin snowpack will deliver an above-average runoff this spring, filling Lake Tahoe to near its maximum storage capacity.

Cold weather and April snow showers have padded this year’s snowpack, raising it to 169 percent of average for the date on Wednesday, according to the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service.

“The year is right up there with some of the top winters,” said hydrologist Dan Greenlee in the service’s Nevada state office in Reno. “Typically, the snowpack peak is on April 1 and begins to melt after that date. If it doesn’t melt, the average for the date can go up, and it’s been so cold the last couple of weeks we are adding to the snowpack.”

Greenlee consulted with National Weather Service specialists at the River Forecast Center in Sacramento before issuing the first water supply outlook for Lake Tahoe.

The April 1 forecast called for a “closed-gate” rise of 1.9 feet at Lake Tahoe this spring, the rise that would be expected if no water were released into the Truckee River.

With the lake’s level at 5.27 feet above the lake’s natural rim on April 1, the runoff prediction would more than fill the lake’s reservoir capacity behind the 6.1-foot dam in Tahoe City. Lake Tahoe’s storage capacity is 732,000 acre feet, enough water to satisfy the annual needs of 1.4 million families.

Water stored at Lake Tahoe enters the 105-mile long Truckee River, and is used for the municipal water supply of Reno, to generate electricity and to irrigate farms in the Fallon area.

The Truckee River empties into Pyramid Lake, and is essential for maintaining the health of the native cui ui and Lahontan cutthroat fisheries. Downstream water users have negotiated a new agreement for sharing the water, the draft Truckee River Operating Agreement, which guarantees enough water for Pyramid Lake and Reno.

The lake level forecast is important to the the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water storage in the Truckee River Basin and controls the release of water from Lake Tahoe. Garry Stone, the federal watermaster, said the forecast is in line with earlier estimates.

“My responsibility is to fill Lake Tahoe when I have the water,” Stone said. “Ideally, we would like to fill the lake with the last snowflake.”

On Wednesday, Stone reduced the release from Lake Tahoe from 1,200 cubic feet per second to 760 cfs, and hopes to maintain a flow of 650 cfs throughout the summer.

Some residents of the Tahoe Basin have expressed concern over the use of Lake Tahoe as a reservoir, saying the higher level causes erosion around the shoreline. Both property owners and environmentalists have voiced objections, although the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has stated that erosion would occur regardless of the lake’s level.

“With the high lake level, we have noticed that the shoreline is taking a serious beating during storms,” said Rochelle Nason of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “There might be shoreline erosion in any case, but this is an issue that needs study.”

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