Residents raise questions and concerns over saving Walker Lake

YERINGTON - A federal proposal to remove additional water from the Walker River Basin has residents wondering when their concerns will be addressed.

How much water is needed to preserve the Walker Lake ecosystem and the Lahontan cutthroat trout? Where will the water come from? Is saving Walker Lake a feasible goal? Who will make that decision?

The questions were raised last week as the Bureau of Land Management presented the Sierra Front-Northwestern Basin Resource Advisory Committee with an update on the progress of the environmental impact study. The study is intended to determine the effects removal of additional water from the basin would have on the area's economy, hydrology and general environment and to identify viable options. The government's primary proposal involves obtaining the water needed to lower the salinity in the lake by purchasing water or rights from willing sellers within the basin.

The report was a summary of information received through a series of public scoping meetings and workshops. Between Feb. 16 and July 13, BLM held a total of eight such meetings, two each in Yerington, Hawthorne, Carson City and Bridgeport, Calif.

Following the BLM presentation, Lyon County Commissioner Phyllis Hunewill told the panel, "It seems this is a waste of time. Even after all the meetings, there are still no specific numbers. You (BLM) really need to define how much water you will actually need. The amount might not even be realistic."

Smith Valley rancher Lu Weaver agreed.

"You are not going to get the 47,000 acre feet with a few little manipulations," Weaver said. "You will have to take all of the water out of the basin for years to get what you need. And you have never said who is going to make this decision."

Bureau of Land management officials said they would not have specific answers until they review all information gathered from recent hydrological studies of the river basin. John Singlaub, BLM Carson City field manager, said the final decision would probably not be made at the local level.

"At this time I do not know who will make the final decision, but it will probably come from higher up. As soon as we figure it out, we will let you know," he told attendees.

Dan Jacquet, also with the BLM Carson City office, said the final numbers on how much water would be needed to reduce and permanently maintain acceptable salt concentrations in the terminal lake will come from the recently completed hydrological studies.

"Where the water comes from relates to how much is needed," he said. "I will pick up the draft of the hydrological study on Monday. We will do a preliminary technical review with Desert Research Institute and USGS, and, sometime in September we would like to do a peer review with other engineers and agencies who have an interest."

Jacquet said the Walker River Irrigation District and the Dynamic Action on Wells Group would be included in the review process.

DAWG is a Yerington-based watchdog group whose goal is to protect domestic wells within the Walker River basin. DAWG claims the numbers submitted to BLM by the Desert Research Institute are unrealistic and will not work.

Jacquet said numbers would not be final until the scooping process is completed.

"This is a dynamic, ongoing process. If we miss something and receive new information, we will consider it," he said. "If it shows the project is not feasible, we would consider ending further pursuit."

Desert Research Institute subcontracted with Public Resource Associates and their hydrologist Tom Myers to do the hydrological study. Mason Valley rancher and Lyon County Commissioner David Fulstone believes this relationship may steer the study results in favor of Save Walker Lake advocates.

"We have expressed concern with DRI using Public Resource Associates and feel this may cloud the hydrology study," Fulstone told panel members.

DAWG chairman David Haight agreed, and referred in particular to an article by Myers published in the 1997 summer edition of Wild Earth magazine that concluded saving Walker Lake will require the water rights structure of the Walker River be changed radically.

In comments following the meeting, Haight said, "Based on the documents I have read that have been written by him, I feel Tom Myers is somewhat biased."

Myers also works with the Walker Lake Working Group, a Nevada Wildlife Federation affiliate working to save the lake.

Susan Lynn, an advisory panel member and executive director at Public Resource Associates, said the hydrological modeling will not be the only measure.

"Yes, we (Resource Associates) want to get water to the lake, but we do not want to see the extinguishing of agriculture in the valley. It has never been our intent to jury the data. If it is not feasible, we will live by that decision."

Panel member Tebeau Piquet expressed concern with the federal efforts to purchase water rights.

"I have heartburn whenever the federal government gets it hands in our water rights. If the agricultural lands go, who is going to replace that tax base?" he said. "There also comes a time when you have to decide if we continue to spend to save a terminal lake or cut bait."

The 15-member Basin Resource Advisory Council comprises representatives from state and local governmental agencies and residents representing ranching, recreation, mining, and other interests. Members are appointed by the Department of the Interior and act as an advisory board to the BLM on natural resource issues.

In concluding their review of the Walker Lake issue, the board generally agreed the economic concerns of the entire system, from Bridgeport to Walker Lake, must be considered and stressed it was not just a Yerington and ranching issue.

Singlaub said his intent has been to lay out the proposal in terms of impacts and to make it a process that respects all issues involved, as fairly as possible, with as much public involvement as possible.

"We have to be very sure before we take the first step. We also realize no one trusts the federal government. This makes it a huge challenge," he told the panel. "However, by necessity, the public has become tremendously educated on this, which has been a positive benefit."

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