Washoe Lake north of Carson City nearly dry after five years of drought

Park Supervisor Jennifer Dawson stands in front of a very dried-up Washoe Lake.

Park Supervisor Jennifer Dawson stands in front of a very dried-up Washoe Lake.

Five years of drought has reduced Washoe Lake to little more than a puddle and Park Supervisor Jennifer Dawson says unless the Sierra gets some moisture this winter, it could very well be dry next year.

When full, Washoe Lake is four miles long and two miles wide, pretty much filling the valley between Reno and Carson City. Five years ago, the lake was lapping at the shoulder of Highway 395 at the Bellevue Bridge. Now the shore is several hundred yards away; the lake is about a tenth that size and still fading. In fact, heading south from the crest of I-580, the lake appears to be a tiny pool surrounded by a huge lawn.

But even when full, Dawson said, the lake is only 12 feet deep at its deepest point so it’s vulnerable to dry spells.

The problem is the lake is fed by 11 streams, 10 of which are on the west side. With almost no snowpack on the Sierra range, those streams aren’t providing anywhere near enough water to maintain the lake.

“That’s why it’s really dependent on the winter,” she said. “I really hope this winter we are able to get a snow pack up in the mountains.”

She said if the lake does dry next year, it won’t be the first time. It’s happened several times since Washoe Lake State Park was established in 1977.

It will be more serious to the numerous waterfowl and migratory birds that rely on the lake and its wetlands for forage and nesting sites. Normally, a wide swath of the lake bed at the south end is off limits to people and their canine pets during nesting season. Nearly all of that turf is, now, just that — turf rather than wetlands.

But because the lake is so shallow, it doesn’t take a lot of moisture to bring parts of it back to life. Even the gentle rains of the past few days again created ponds in several places around the lake’s southern end.

Because of its proximity to Reno and Carson City, Washoe Lake is a popular destination.

“We’re a community park but also a destination park,” she said.

She said the park offers not only boating and other water activities but camping, an equestrian center that even provides wash down areas and corrals for horses. She said it’s available for kite boarding, kayaking, wind surfers, jet skiers, boats and hang gliders.

There are 49 spaces in the campgrounds that have showers and restrooms and cost Nevada residents just $15 a night. There’s hiking in the hills and in the Scripps Wildlife Management Area between Washoe Lake and Little Washoe at the north end, horseback and ATV trails in the adjacent Virginia Range.

“There are so many different uses at this park,” she said. “Not a lot of parks have so diverse uses.”

With the main lake disappearing, she said Little Washoe became a lot more popular this past summer. It too is significantly smaller than it was five years ago, but it’s a lot easier to put in a small watercraft like jet skis and kayaks there.

But the ongoing drought has forced Dawson and her colleagues to get a lot more creative about what Washoe Lake Park has to offer.

Some of those activities include things like moonlight hikes, bringing the Astronomy Society out to set up telescopes for people to view the sky among others.

“We’re still finding opportunities to bring people out to the park but we’re focusing on non-water-based activities,” she said.

Apparently those efforts have paid off. Despite the shrinking size of the lake, she said visitation is up 23,600 over last year to more than 200,000 people.

And Dawson has more ideas for the future.

Still, she said, she’s really hoping for a good winter that refills the lake.


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