At the McCarran Ranch about 10 miles east of Sparks, Michael Cameron gestures
towards the underbrush along the Truckee River to trace the meandering stream
the river soon will become.
The flood-control policies of the 1960s straightened the Truckee and turned
it into a chute for rushing water. Today, most of the river at McCarran Ranch
is shallow, 200 feet wide, devoid of rapids and sunk in a channel walled with
sand and soil. A few 80- and 90-year-old cottonwoods the granddaddies,
Cameron calls them cling to the banks where decades ago a forest shaded
plants and animals. The once-wild river, he says, is trapped in a straight
jacket. But not for long.
Within a few years, the Truckee will be set free to meander like a snake through
a canopy of cottonwoods, ripple over rapids, and gurgle past pockets of wetlands.
That newly liberated stream will spawn a forest. It will slack the thirst of
native plants and animals long shoved aside by invasive weeds and humanitys
insults to the water.
The reconstruction will turn back time. The Truckees past will become
Its no small task to jump-start an ecosystem, says Cameron,
Truckee River projects director for the Nature Conservancy. What we want
to do is establish equilibrium. Nature does that in geologic timeframes; were
trying to do it in a few years. He says local, state, and federal officials
particularly Greg Dennis of Reno and Wayne Sidell of Sparks collaborated
on ways to bring back a healthy, natural river system. A meandering river, with
forests and wetlands, would filter pollution and soak up floodwaters, experts
say, as well as open up new opportunities for wildlife, hikers, fisherman, kayakers,
and rafters. A new river trail, in progress both east and west of Reno, would
connect with the existing urban river walk and offer strollers and bikers a
scenic route through miles of riparian habitat.
Thanks to dedicated advocates, committed public officials and money from federal,
local, and private sources, the rehabilitation has been under way for four years.
The Nature Conservancy plans to restore 20 miles of the river from Vista to
Wadsworth, where the Truckee bends northward to terminate in Pyramid Lake. So
far, Conservancy contractors have built a mile of new river, with an additional
3.5 miles of channel restoration planned by 2007. They will plant 60 acres of
forest and are working to reintroduce native plants, such as five species of
willows, and encourage new populations of fauna, such as the leopard frog.
Thats Phase 1. Eleven other sites have been identified for restoration
along the 20-mile stretch, including the Mustang Ranch, 102 Ranch, and Lockwood
properties. Of the $10 million project, $6 million comes from federal coffers,
$3 million is local money, and $1 million is from private donations.
Right now its a pilot project at McCarran Ranch, Cameron
says. Were learning what works and what doesnt.
Some of the best-laid plans can backfire. For example, small cottonwoods planted
alongside the river became treats for deer, beaver, and voles until defensive
plans evolved. The trees are wrapped to shield their bark from the smaller animals
and a fence keeps deer away from the new-growth areas.
The problems with voles, which are small rodents, also were an unexpected
result of watering the seedlings with sprinklers. The sprays meant for native
species also nurtured weeds and the vole population exploded. A drip-irrigation
system has replaced the sprinklers and hawks and other raptors will reduce the
vole invasion, Cameron says.
Its not as straightforward as it might seem, he says. Its
trial and error. In the more than 150 years since wagon trains first followed
the Truckee River Route through Nevada to California, error has ruled the waterway.
In the 1870s, sawdust from lumber operations clogged the river and the Truckee
was an open sewer for decades. Reno residents described the water as noxious
chowder. In February 1879, the Reno Evening Gazette reported
the Truckee River was the color of melted butter because of oil dumped in the
water. The newspaper reported the river is a tumbling mass of sawdust
A poor lonesome fish would not even know its mother two feet away.
By the 20th century, many fish species were on the brink of extinction due to
pollution and the more than a dozen dams blocking their spawning runs. The water
stank and bubbled in eddies awash with acid waste from a paper mill in
Yet, the river recovered. By the 1960s public opinion and government policy
came together to protect the Truckee. But the same technological advances and
political intervention that improved water quality also crushed much of the
rivers natural habitat.
John Champion, the self-styled protector of the Truckee, told a reporter in
1992 of all the mistakes that harmed the Truckee, it took flood-control programs
in the 1960s to nearly bring the river to ruin.
To protect Reno and Sparks from floods, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
came through and straightened out the river to make it a spout, a fire hose
that would spray the water away east of Reno, Champion remembered.
Engineers (exploded) the Vista Reefs (rapids), took away the river bends,
and left us with a high-walled ditch. The result: 90 percent of the cottonwood
forest east of the Truckee Meadows vanished when seedlings could no longer be
nurtured by spring floodwaters. Of the 91 bird species identified along the
Truckee River by a naturalist in an 1868 survey, 42 had vanished by 1976. Invasive
weeds like tall whitetop choked out native plants, most native trout became
extinct, and people feared the river would never recover.
A natural river has meanders, oxbows, and backwaters, says Kim
Tisdale, fisheries biologist for the Nevada Division of Wildlife. A river
is a complex ecosystem of riffles, runs, and pools. The diversity of environments
makes for a diversity of animals and plants, she says, but once the river became
a slow, wide, deep channel, many species vanished.
Never say die
Yet, the river wouldnt be fully tamed. In 1986, a flood carved sandbars
where cottonwoods took root and a long drought allowed them to mature without
being swept away. The same thing happened after a major flood in January 1997,
says Sherman Swanson, an environmental science professor at the University of
Now the trees are as big around as my arm, Swanson says. Theyre
able to withstand the flows, catch sediments, and build stream banks.
The birds are returning. At McCarran Ranch, white pelicans, red-tailed hawks,
great horned owls, and some bird species that havent been seen on the
Truckee in decades observe the redevelopment work. This summer, Woods
rose, buffalo berries, black currants, and Nebraska sedge will boom where noxious
weeds held sway.
Its amazing how quickly the critters will recolonize, says
Tisdale. The fish and the bugs come back. Make the habitat and they will
find their way to it. She says the cottonwood forest is key to a thriving
Its really nice whats happening at McCarran Ranch,
she says. Its good not just for the fish and animals, but for the
health of the river in general. The riparian forest will provide more bugs for
the fish, but the cottonwood trees will also stabilize the banks and reduce
the amount of sediment going into the river. Susan Lynn, a founder of
the Truckee River Yacht Club in 1988, says the group lobbied for a better-protected,
more natural river. That vision now is given life from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid
Im thrilled with whats happening on the river, Lynn
says. For years, we were pretty much the only ones out there advocating,
but today so many people and groups are involved
The Nature Conservancy
is leading the way. Cameron says if the Truckee were left alone, it would
eventually return to its natural state.
In 200 years or so, the river would probably heal itself, he says.
Were just trying to give it a jump-start, a little help getting
out of that straight jacket. The Conservancy also is negotiating with
Sierra Pacific to purchase seven miles of the river from the Nevada state line
to Floriston, including 3,200 acres in California. The Corps of Engineers, once
labeled by environmentalists as the enemy of a natural river, now provides millions
to undo the flood-control measures considered state-of-the art in the 1960s.
What was straightened will become serpentine. What was stagnant will bring
forth new life. For 150 years, weve walled in the river, bombed its reefs
into pebbles, dammed its channels, chopped out its islands, and penned it up
until its spirit seemed broken. But the Truckee endured. Wiser now, we set it
We want to reintroduce the dynamic process, Cameron says. We
are putting it in place with the full expectation that it will move. We want
the river to do what it does naturally. The river has its own ideas.
Frank Mullen is investigative reporter at the Reno Gazette-Journal and
author of The Donner Party Chronicles: A Day-by-Day Account of a Doomed
Wagon Train, 1846-47. His interest in the Truckee River Trail led him to
write River of Hope: The Truckee River Chronicles, a history of the river
from prehistoric times to the present. The river book is nearly complete and
should be in print sometime next year.