Record Sierra runoff (and the Public Trust Doctrine) flow into Walker Lake
In the last days of 1994, celebrations of State Water Board Decision 1631 by Mono Lake Committee staff had barely ended when it began to snow, and snow, and snow. My theory (never subjected to scientific review) is that years of hard work by people who loved Mono Lake enough to battle against long odds, were being rewarded by good karma, and atmospheric lows, which produced 175% of average runoff, and raised the lake by three feet.
I am struck by the similarity of this episode of Mono Lake history to the current situation at Walker Lake in Mineral County, Nevada. On August 5, 2022, Chief US District Judge Miranda M. Du denied a motion by the Walker River Irrigation District to essentially dismiss previous decisions that introduced the Public Trust Doctrine into Nevada Water Law. Not long after, it began to snow, and then some. Around 300% of average snowfall in the Walker River Basin has resulted in enough runoff to bypass diversions and cause Walker Lake to rise by 14 feet so far this year, with more to come.
While a remarkable and welcome event, it needs to be put into context; an additional increase of around 40 vertical feet of water would be needed before Walker Lake’s native fishery of Lahontan cutthroat trout and tui chub could begin to be restored. Indeed, Walker Lake dropped 181 feet between 1882 and 2016 due to upstream agricultural diversions, putting restoration efforts at a serious disadvantage.
The fate of Walker Lake is currently being decided in US District Court in Reno, Nevada. The discovery phase is underway and will continue until April 2025. A bench trial will take about one year, followed by appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which will take around two years. In total it will take five years for the federal courts to define the practical application of the Public Trust Doctrine to the Walker Lake issue. This decision will greatly influence the protection of Public Trust values throughout Nevada.
The Walker Lake Working Group is committed to funding the legal battle for Walker Lake. Donations to help fund the expense of this federal court litigation are welcome.
Celebrating the rise from record runoff
While there is still a long way to go before restoration of Walker Lake’s native fishery can begin, it’s definitely time to celebrate! On September 23, 2023 the Walker Lake Rehydration Celebration will take place at Monument Beach, about 12 miles north of Hawthorne, Nevada.
Events will include:
- Free canoe tours with Mono Lake Committee staff
- Interpretive talks and walks about Walker Lake’s natural history and undecided future
- Beach activities and a raffle with great prizes
Come check out the Great Basin’s least known and most endangered terminal lake.
Top photo courtesy of KRNV News.