EARLIER THIS YEAR, Washoe County decided to auction off some water
rights it owned in the North Valleys area. The water was freed up when the county-owned
Sierra Sage Golf Course switched from using potable drinking water for irrigation
to using highly treated wastewater. That left the county parks department with
174 acre-feet of water for which it had no use.
An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land with a 1-foot-deep pond,
and 174 acre-feet is enough to supply 174 families of four people with water
for a year. So, by modern Northern Nevada growth standards, it wasnt a
lot of water.
But it was, in many ways, very special water, for it represented the last
available chunk of water rights for the Stead and Lemmon Valley areas. Its
an area where developers want to build and build a lot but many
of the projects planned for that area were stalled when state officials realized
they overestimated the amount of water available there and took back water rights
they had already approved.
So developers came armed with their checkbooks that night in March. With demand
for housing high and Northern Nevada housing prices soaring into Californias
stratosphere, paying a little extra for the fundamental element that makes houses
grow in the Truckee Meadows a clear, unquestionable water source
seemed to make good economic sense.
But even the most optimistic water watchers could not have anticipated just
how valuable that water would prove to be by evenings end.
All told, the county made $7 million. Thats more than $40,000 per acre-foot
and nearly three times the waters appraised value. Government officials
who came to the auction thinking they would easily pluck up a few acre-feet
to keep on hand to sell to small-time builders simply watched, their jaws going
slack as bidders from such big-time operators as Centex Homes pushed prices
higher and higher.
We bid at the whole lot, but not at the prices they ended up at,
says Lori Williams, executive director of the Truckee Meadows Water Authority,
the water purveyor for 85,000 customers in Washoe County. That was not
a game we wanted to be in. While the North Valleys water auction was,
in some ways, an anomaly an unexpected gusher that erupted at just the
right time and just the right place to make the water unusually valuable
in other ways, it is a reflection of whats happening all over the Truckee
Meadows. Our water supply is limited, and the supply of available water is quickly
shrinking at a time when the demand for new homes is skyrocketing. You dont
have to be Alan Greenspan to know the price of water is going up.
Just four years ago, rights to an acre-foot of water sold for about $3,200
in the Truckee Meadows. Today, the price is at least twice that and often higher.
Williams has experts in the field talking to people who own water rights,
but lately every deal she puts on the table gets topped by somebody else. One
offer of $7,200 per acre-foot was trumped by a bid of $9,000. Another time,
developers came in with an offer of $11,000 per acre-foot. And no one is expecting
those prices to level off any time soon.
Water has always been a valuable commodity in the Truckee Meadows, but
with so many people wanting to move here, its importance has taken on new dimensions,
The Truckee Meadows water picture is at once labyrinthine and simple. Its
easy to get lost in talk about Orr Ditch decrees, negotiated settlements, and
the complex history and politics of the matter. Some of it just doesnt
make sense. Such as how a Nevada water company can control water in California
lakes and reservoirs, or why Nevada farmers maintain a dam that holds back water
in a reservoir built by the federal Bureau of Reclamation on land in California.
So dont go there.
What you need to know is this: The Truckee River supplies about 85 percent
of our domestic needs and the rest comes out of carefully regulated wells tapping
underground aquifers. The amount of water available and, thus, the amount to
which people are allowed rights each year was established by the courts and
state engineers who have studied the matter tirelessly for decades. When there
is a drought, there is not enough water to serve everyones rights, so
some people have to go without. Those poor folks include ranchers and farmers
landowners who irrigate with water drained from the Truckee because their
rights have a lower priority than other users, including the municipal water
companies that deliver water to our homes. So rest assured your tap will never
go dry. Unless, of course, there is a nuclear holocaust or catastrophic global
warming or some other kind of colossal ecological disaster.
In years when water is plentiful when our frozen vault of snow in the
Sierra is deep and mountain streams are surging with enthusiasm extra
water is siphoned off and stored in a variety of places. The top six feet of
Lake Tahoe, for instance, is actually a reservoir. So is Independence Lake north
of Truckee and the top layer of Donner Lake. Boca, Prosser, and Stampede reservoirs
also hold water held back from the spring run-off. TMWA even stores extra water
underground by recharging wells.
Most of the water serving new developments will come from developers buying
up farmers water rights to Truckee Riverwater. The developers turn the
rights over to TMWA and, in return, TMWA issues a will-serve letter
for water equal to the rights surrendered by the farmer.
Houses in the fields
Its no secret that irrigated fields are disappearing in the Truckee
Meadows as those sparkling new subdivisions spring to life. But it might surprise
you how fast those fields are being lost.
A few years ago, water experts determined there were about 51,000 acre-feet
of mainstem Truckee River water rights being used for agriculture
or tied up on land already covered in asphalt or concrete in the Truckee Meadows.
They figured that was enough water to handle all the growth we could envision
for the next 20 years.
But in just three years, some 10,000 acre-feet was swallowed up by development.
For years the amount of agricultural water converted to domestic use remained
steady at about 1,500 acre-feet a year. Then it jumped to 2,250 acre-feet and
then two years ago it went to 3,000 acre-feet. Last year TMWA issued will-serve
letters for 5,000 acre-feet.
TMWA wasnt the only operation seeing surprising growth. The Washoe County
Department of Water Resources almost doubled its number of customers to more
than 16,000 between 1997 to 2003. Its number of sewer connections tripled.
So now water planners are rethinking that 20-year estimate. If water is going
to continue coming on line at the rate its going now, those 51,000 acre-feet
will be all used up well before 2025. But the experts say we are more likely
to run out of buildable land before those Truckee River water rights are depleted.
Don Casazza, a longtime rancher in the south Truckee Meadows and regional
water planning commissioner, has watched the growth from his front porch. His
ranch used to be 220 acres. Hes sold most of it but still has 30 acres
When they first brought that freeway (I-580) through, I thought, Holy
cow! Who all do they think needs a highway like that? he says. But
now its all developed and people need a road like that. It wasnt
as hard as some might think to give up the ranching life. As more houses crowd
up to your fields and the neighbors dogs find out how much fun it is to
run with your cows, selling the land and the water rights starts to make more
If theres one thing ranchers like Don Casazza sound wistful about its
the irrigation ditches that still deliver water to their fields. There are eight
major ditches that funnel water out of the Truckee and carry it all over the
Truckee Meadows to water treatment plants and hundreds of small ranches that
still use them for flood irrigation. Cassaza is vice president of one of the
longest ditches the 32-mile Steamboat Ditch that runs from the state
line down to the south Truckee Meadows.
Although the number of people relying on ditches for irrigation water has
remained the same, the amount of water running through many of the ditches has
decreased over the years as more water is sold off for domestic uses. Theres
talk now of narrowing some of the ditches or combining them so less water is
lost to absorption, but a lot of people would miss the ditches if any were to
be abandoned. Some date back to the 1850s. The biggest one the Highland
Ditch, which delivers river water to TMWAs Chalk Bluff water treatment
plant near West McCarran Boulevard was built in 1880.
I grew up in this valley and the ditches are a big part of the history
and development of this area, says Norm Dianda, president of Q&D Construction
and, for the past 20 years, president of the Last Chance Ditch company.
Dianda and Casazza admit they endure some headaches running those two ditches.
Downstream users complain about the guy above him taking too much water. Its
hard to find workers to patrol the water ways through the summer. And every
year, it seems, there are more houses creeping up along the ditches and homeowners
objecting to how the ditches are cleaned out.
But at the same time, you sense they love it every spring when they see that
first head of water pushing through those old trenches.
The southwest (Truckee Meadows) wouldnt be what it is without
that irrigation, says Dianda, who irrigates his own 2.5 acres in the southwest
with ditch water.
Although water planners have estimated that we will run out of buildable land
before we run out of water to serve projects on that land, planners already
have started looking at future water options.
Steve Bradhurst, executive director of the Washoe County Department of Water
Resources, expects a couple of thousand acre-feet of water rights will be freed
up over the next decade as more projects or developments switch from using potable
water for irrigation to using treated effluent. The countys water reclamation
plant near Rattlesnake Mountain treats the effluent, stores it through the winter
in a reservoir and then treats it a second time before its piped to places
like ArrowCreek and Wolf Run golf courses for irrigation. Bradhurst calls it
first-class reclaimed water and it sells for about a third the price
of potable water.
What were doing is stretching our resources, says Bradhurst.
You have to be smart about it. So where will we grow when the Truckee
Meadows is full and Truckee River water is all allocated? Well, follow the water.
Right now the most likely source of additional water is from Fish Springs Ranch
in northern Washoe County, where Vidler Water Company officials have been granted
rights to 13,000 acre-feet of water. Company leaders have proposed delivering
8,000 acre-feet to the North Valleys from the ranch. The county also has 3,000
acre-feet in Dry Valley that they arent sure what to do with at this point.
Water planners also have scouted out locations for future reservoirs and have
found eight possibilities, including two in Verdi, one in the Virginia range
east of Hidden Valley, and sites along Thomas, Whites and Galena creeks in the
south Truckee Meadows.
Water meters for all
In June of this year, TMWA finally finished installing water meters at every
single family home it serves in the Truckee Meadows. TMWA officials still have
some small apartment complexes and duplexes to meter, but 90 percent of their
customers now have them. But, they arent being turned on yet.
This is because TMWA still is determining how everyone will pay his or her
water bill. Most customers still can choose to pay a flat rate or pay a metered
rate at least until the authoritys board members decide to flip
the switch and put everyone on metered rates. Although board members have
shown an eagerness to do that if you charge by volume for milk and gas,
it reasons, why not a valuable, limited resource like water? the authority
isnt rushing into it.
Initially, water officials wanted to make sure TMWA wasnt going to lose
a lot of money switching from flat rates to metered rates and wind up in a deficit
and be forced to raise rates. But after analyzing the issue, TMWA officials
decided a budget shortfall wouldnt be created from the move.
In making the switch, TMWA officials are aiming at helping people understand
why meters are important and what will happen to the water saved by meters and
other conservation measures. For instance, they say, water being saved isnt
going to new development its being stored in reservoirs or sent
down river to help endangered fish in Pyramid Lake.
The water only gets saved for drought or is turned over to the environment,
Williams says. It doesnt go to future growth. Meters have
been a touchy issue for years. Users worried if they hooked up to meters somebody
would finally realize how much water they use and their bills would go through
the roof. Or they worried rates would be increased and their bills would go
through the roof. But many customers have found they save money by switching
to a metered rate.
Its true flat rates have climbed much faster in recent years than meter
rates, but that wasnt an effort to push
people into meters, Williams says. The goal was to get flat-rate users to
cover the cost of the water they are using.
We have two types of people still on flat rates those who are
using way more than they are paying for and those who are using way less than
they are paying for, Williams says. The guy who is paying $70 a
month and irrigating four acres is being subsidized by the other guy who has
just a small garden. The switch to meters isnt inevitable, but feel
free to bet it will happen. For one thing, TMWA decision makers are strongly
in favor of meters. But another factor is something called the Truckee River
Negotiated Agreement, a proposed pact between all the water users of the Truckee
River, from the Pyramid Lake Paiutes to farmers in Fallon to the Truckee Meadows
That proposal, which still is three to five years away from being finalized,
includes a deal in which TMWA gets a boatload of upstream storage in exchange
for putting their customers on water meters. Downstream users believed that
was the best way to ensure the growing metropolitan area does not squander water
that should be going to fish and lakes.
The spirit of the deal was we meter and get storage, says Williams,
who worked with Sierra Pacific Power Company before it sold its water operation
to the water authority in 2001.
But how much would meters save? Although studies show peoples domestic
consumption of water is non-elastic theyll use a certain
amount no matter how much it costs them other studies show when water
officials flip the switch to meters, they will save 4,000 acre-feet
of water a year.
But that water wont be going to new homes, either; it will be stored
in Stampede Reservoir for drought years when we really need it.
Theres been a fair amount of squawking in the four years since TMWA
was formed and acquired the water system from Sierra Pacific. Some say the authority
paid too much for the system, that it acquired a distribution network that needed
a lot of repairs. Flat and metered rates were increased in November 2003 and
again in March this year, and more than one customer will say they are worried
about unchecked rate hikes in the future.
While its true the authority can raise rates without going to the state
Public Utilities Commission, as Sierra Pacific did, Williams says the authority
will only charge what it has to.
Were not profit-motivated, she says. Everything we
collect goes to serving the customer. And keeping the system running.
Williams doesnt sugarcoat her description of the system she inherited
from her former employer, Sierra Pacific.
Its a 1960s Chevy. It was never a Cadillac and it certainly wasnt
a Yugo, she says. Some maintenance and rehabilitation on it was
deferred, but not unjustifiably so. State and federal water quality regulations
that emerged in the late 1990s forced Sierra Pacific to invest a lot of money
in water treatment facilities and other operations that siphoned money away
from routine upkeep.
Its like if they had to put a new engine in, so work on the muffler
and the brakes had to be deferred, Williams explained.
But, still, its a reliable system. Service is rarely interrupted and
water delivered is good quality.
Although we had a pretty good winter in 2004-05, with the snowpack measuring
150 percent of normal in many watersheds, water experts like federal water master
Garry Stone arent saying were out of a five-year drought yet. In
fact, anybody who knows anything about the water picture wont say that
until they are sure Lake Tahoe will fill to its artificial brim and all upstream
reservoirs can be filled.
Stone is predicting Tahoe still will be about four feet below the dam at Tahoe
City this summer and he doesnt expect the 226,500 acre-foot Stampede Reservoir
to fill up either. Most of the other reservoirs will fill, however, and he doesnt
expect to have any trouble maintaining river flows on the Truckee this summer.
Since the severe drought of 1986-1994, water officials say theyve taken
several steps to improve our storage to handle dry periods. In 1999, the state
engineer granted TMWA a permit to store treated river water underground and
that aquifer under southwest Reno now contains 32,000 acre-feet of water, about
a third of the annual demand by
TMWA customers. An interim agreement has allowed the authority to store another
14,000 acre-feet in Stampede and Boca, and when the river agreement is reached,
that storage capacity will climb to 39,000 acre-feet.
But even with these preparations, it remains a challenge convincing the public
all these efforts including the twice-a-week watering rules are
not just so we can provide water for more houses.
Getting people to practice conservation is one of our biggest challenges,
Bradhurst says. They want to think its all going to new houses,
but its not. We dont have any more water now than we did 10 years
ago; its just being used differently.
But people need to realize that if they use half as much water, the
half they save just stays in the creeks or in the rivers or in the ground or
goes to Pyramid Lake. It just makes sense for them to conserve.
Jim Sloan, 49, is a senior editor/projects at the Reno Gazette-Journal.
He has written extensively about health, fitness, and environmental issues.
He also is the author of several books.