Rainstorm. June 10, 2015.

Drops in a dry land: Recent rains help refill Lake Tahoe

In Drought, Spring by KelseyFitzgerald4 Comments

Here in Reno, we woke up yesterday morning to dark gray skies and the patter of raindrops. Like any sane person living in a desert during a drought, I grabbed a raincoat and made a beeline for the river, determined to enjoy a good drenching. And, boy, I was not disappointed. My raincoat leaks, the branches and plant leaves along the trail were soaked and hanging low, water was dropping from the sky in a steady drizzle, and the puddles were rising. I thought I might run into a frog or two on my walk, but instead I only found birds, water-striders and wet, happy plants.

  • Thinleaf alder with female cones. Mayberry Park, June 11, 2015.

We’ve had a number of rainstorms in the past few weeks, which have been pretty enjoyable and have helped to ease the drought a little. After an above-average May for precipitation in the Lake Tahoe basin, yesterday’s storm brought Lake Tahoe’s water level back up to lake’s natural rim (6223 feet elevation) for the first time since last October, meaning that water can theoretically start spilling into the Truckee River again, depending on whether the watermaster plans to save it or release it. Below is a graph from USGS showing lake level since last October. The 3.0 line marks the lake’s natural rim, 6223 feet. (We’re there!):

June 11, 2015: The water level in Lake Tahoe reaches the rim! Source: USGS.

June 11, 2015: The water level in Lake Tahoe reaches the rim! Source: USGS.

According to NRCS data, as of June 1st, our other reservoirs (Stampede, Boca, Prosser, Donner and Independence Lake) were at 23% of capacity. This time last year, they were 40% full. Our mountain snowpack, which acts as sort of a high-elevation natural reservoir and slowly releases snowmelt to the watershed, was pretty dismal this year.  Below is a graph from NRCS that shows snowpack in the Truckee River basin for the last four years. The black line is the data from this past winter, 2015; compare that with the red line which shows the median (mid-point in the data) for what snowpack has been in the past:

Winter snowpack for the Truckee River Basin, 2012 - 2015. Source: NRCS.

Winter snowpack for the Truckee River Basin, 2012 – 2015. Source: NRCS.

So, the rains are helping to refill our lakes and reservoirs a little, and definitely helping our gardens, but the low snowpack and high summer temperatures still to come mean that the drought is likely to continue for some time. Drought can be hard on fish, trees and many other Truckee River species. This week’s fishing report from the RGJ says:

The conditions on the Truckee River are such that it is probably time to leave it alone and see if the fish have any chance at all of surviving the summer. As the water gets lower and warmer it will eventually get to the point where the fish can’t survive the conditions. It may be coming sooner than later, especially in the lower elevations around Reno.”

This summer will be an important time to keep an eye out for wildlife. If you’re down by the river and see something interesting, please submit an observation to Truckee River Guide!

  • Wet feet. Mayberry Park, June 10, 2015.
  • Red milkweed beetle on a Showy milkweed, Mayberry Park. June 10, 2015.
Dorostkar Park bridge. June 10, 2015.

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  1. Thanks Kelsey – these are great resources for all of us who are pulling for the Truckee river to survive the summer. One thing I’ve been curious about is whether there is good resource to summarize where water is being diverted from the river, and how much? I think I saw a “system map” once that showed the diversions, but I’ve never figured out if the flow levels being diverted at each one are available.

      1. Author

        Hey Dylan, I was just looking at the Truckee River Operating Agreement website, and found some more info on the ditches —

        First, a map: http://www.troa.net/map/
        If you click on a point, then click “Access data”, you can get to a chart that shows how much water is flowing in each ditch.

        Then, there’s a Daily Watermaster Report that lists how much water is flowing down the Truckee at all of the measuring gages, and how much water is being released from reservoirs: http://www.troa.net/reports/dwmr/

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