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Farms, like feral horses, don’t belong in Nevada

David Colborne
David Colborne

Since this is likely to be one of my more unpopular opinions, let’s get a couple of things straight. 

I don’t believe we need to commit mass genocide against every head of feral livestock roaming without supervision across Nevada’s deserts.

I similarly don’t believe we should abuse the doctrine established under Kelo v. City of New London to use eminent domain to seize the water rights of every agricultural water user in the state. Doing so would probably violate Article 1, Section 22 of our state constitution anyway. 

Thanks, past voters.

I like horses, burros and farms. Really, I do. I mean it. Stop looking at my email address at the bottom of this column like that.

I just think those who first settled our state out from under the noses of the Paiutes and Shoshone didn’t seriously expect to have descendents still living here over 150 years later, in no small part because many of them didn’t. Many of them came, dug around in the dirt for a bit, redirected some rivers to irrigate a few fields to feed others who dug around elsewhere in the dirt, then left their rides in the desert for the next group of “pioneers” to use and moved to California or somewhere back East.

Now we’re living in the consequences.

That’s why, when I read in The Nevada Independent that Nevada’s farms are in decline because younger generations don’t want to take over their parents’ family farms, my thought was — yes, good, glad to see the next generation can tell which way the wind is blowing. Perhaps it’s not great for the environment if our food travels an average of 1,500 miles before it’s purchased but surely it’s worse for the environment to drain every lake in the state to grow a bunch of alfalfa.

Additionally, lest we take the alleged plight of small farmers at face value, allow me to point out that a sub-50 acre farm that earns less than $2,500 in profits per year is not, in fact, a farm in any meaningful sense of the term. It’s a hobby that doubles as a “small business” for tax purposes. The point of such a hobby isn’t to make a profit, it’s to have a taxable vehicle so-called “small-business owners” can launder personal consumption decisions through.

Imagine being able to write off your yard’s water bill and sprinkler system from your taxes as a “business expense” and you get the idea.

There’s nothing wrong with having a hobby. There’s nothing even wrong with having farming as your hobby. I’m only here to opine, not judge. Trouble is, a bunch of long-dead engineers and politicians intentionally overallocated every water source in this state and we either need to reduce the amount of water we pull out of the environment or we’re going to watch the few remaining lakes Nevada has turn into dust. 

Somebody is going to need to use less water. The people who already have off-farm jobs who aren’t even making $200 per month in net profit from their yards seem like obvious targets to, at the very least, attempt to voluntarily buy out.

I bring all of this up because the only place I’m adding to my ongoing list of places to visit in each county in Nevada this week is Walker Lake. What’s left of it and the ecosystem it used to host serves as a stark lesson in what happens when we prioritize agriculture in the driest state in the union over everything else.

Mineral County: Walker Lake

If you’ve ever driven between Reno and Las Vegas, you’ve likely driven past Walker Lake.

Between Hawthorne and Schurz, U.S. Highway 95 winds its way between the Wassuk Range and the shore. As it does so, the road begins to bend and weave, each turn providing the driver an opportunity to appreciate the prominence of Mount Grant and the unlikely blue-green water to its east. The view, assuming you’re not stuck behind a semitruck or a motor home, is quite striking.

What’s also striking is how many bathtub rings surround Walker Lake. How empty the beaches always are. How far from the shore the parking lots and boat ramps all seem to be. How sad and dilapidated the lakeside resort is. How few birds and boats are ever on the lake.

Walker Lake is dead. No trout have been caught in the lake since 2009. Hawthorne stopped hosting its annual Loon Festival because loons, which relied on the fish, won’t visit an empty food court in the desert. 

Anticipating the death of the lake, Mineral County sued the farmers upstream and demanded they leave some water for the fish and the birds and the tourists. More than three decades after the initial lawsuit was first filed, discovery will finally complete in that case in 2025. Then the rest of the phases of the lawsuit will commence.

To understand how Walker Lake got into this condition, hydrologically and legally, it may be helpful to consider a pair of counterexamples.

Before the Newlands Project (which, as an aside, was named after Francis G. Newlands, then-senator from Nevada and not after the project’s desire to open new lands to settlement) started to redirect much of the Truckee River’s flows away from Pyramid Lake, Pyramid Lake would occasionally overflow into the valley to the east of it. When it did so, it created Winnemucca Lake, which was substantial enough to fish from most years. By the 1880s, the lake was approximately 85 feet deep. In 1900, at least one newspaper claimed Winnemucca Lake was the largest lake in the state.

Then, after the completion of the Newlands Project began to redirect half of the Truckee River’s water into farms in Fernley and Fallon, Pyramid Lake’s level began to drop. Cut off from its primary water source, Winnemucca Lake’s level began to drop, too.

The cause was obvious and well understood at the time. In 1920, the Reno Evening Gazette reported that lake levels were rapidly falling after only a decade of major redirections of Truckee River water towards irrigated farms in Fallon. This, however, was intentional. As the report pointed out, irrigation engineers of the time planned on turning Pyramid Lake “into an alkali flat within the next sixty or seventy years.” 

To protect Pyramid Lake, groups began to lobby for the creation of a national park to limit further damage. That, however, never happened. Pyramid Lake continued to shrink. Winnemucca Lake continued to evaporate.

In 1936, with Winnemucca Lake on its last leg, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Winnemucca Migratory Bird Refuge. Doing so removed the public lands surrounding Winnemucca Lake from further settlement. 

It wasn’t nearly enough. Winnemucca Lake dried up completely. In 1962, the refuge was written out of bureaucratic existence.

Since then, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has strenuously and somewhat successfully defended Pyramid Lake from further harm. Lawsuits, including one filed a few months ago, have been used to require water to flow back into the lake. Legislation, including the Truckee-Carson-Pyramid Lake Water Rights Settlement Act passed in 1990, further bolstered the lake’s right to water. Thanks to these efforts over the past six decades, the elevation of Pyramid Lake has increased by nearly 20 feet.

The same logic that dried up Winnemucca Lake and sought to turn Pyramid Lake into an alkali flat in a couple of generations was also applied to the Walker River and, by extension, Walker Lake. It nearly succeeded.

Luckily, for the first time in years, the lake’s water levels are increasing. The lake’s currently sitting at an elevation it hasn’t been at in a decade. This is admittedly more due to last year’s winter being one of the wettest on record than it is any radical change in public policy, but there is a chance that might change soon.

The problem, as the farmers who rely upon the river that feeds Walker Lake know full well, is simple arithmetic. The size and health of Walker Lake, like all endorheic lakes in Nevada, is the sum of the waters flowing into the river minus the evaporation carrying water vapor out of the lake. Historically speaking, the Walker River hasn’t carried enough water into Walker Lake to exceed the rate of evaporation in over a century. Consequently, just to get the lake to stop shrinking, farmers will need to use a lot less water than they currently do.

That is easier said than done. 

Even ignoring the immediate economic impacts, irrigation water doesn’t come from the tap. It flows through canals and ditches — man-made rivers and streams. If one farmer accepts less water from their portion of a canal, it might just get taken by a thirsty farm downstream that hasn’t received its full allotment in decades. Or the lack of water placed in the canal due to their voluntary reduction might reduce the water pressure enough to cut off every farm downstream.

Governments at every level, as well as several nonprofit organizations, have tried for decades to find a way to allow and encourage farmers to draw less water from the Walker River. Historically, the results weren’t encouraging. Farmers refused to sell their water rights. Even when a farmer or other water user voluntarily relinquished their rights for the lake’s sake, federal officials refused to cooperate.

Until recently, that is.

The creation of the Walker River State Recreation Area portends, pardon the pun, a potential watershed in Walker Lake’s fortunes. For the first time in more than a century, farmers are voluntarily walking away from their farms — and their water rights. The Walker Basin Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to purchasing enough water rights to rehydrate the lake, is steadily acquiring additional water rights. The federal watermaster is finally letting water through.

There’s a chance. Maybe. Especially if we get a little help from El Niño again this year.

The next time you drive by Walker Lake on your way to Reno or Las Vegas, keep an eye out for birds. If they start coming back, that’s a sign this state is finally figuring out how to undo more than a century of bad water decisions.

David Colborne ran for public office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Mastodon @[email protected], on Bluesky or email him at [email protected]

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