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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories



Controlled Flooding Helps Nature Take Care of Itself -
The Truckee River Story

An innovative restoration effort has taken advantage of two winters of abundant snowfall and spring floods to bring hundreds of trees back to the lower Truckee River in northwestern Nevada. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Tribe's reservation surrounds the lower Truckee River and the desert lake toward which the water rushes. Pyramid Lake is home to two endangered fish, the Lahontan cutthroat trout and the cui-ui, an ancient desert sucker found nowhere else.

Giving water back to the river

All along the lower reaches of the Truckee River, patches of cottonwoods are beginning to cover the raw banks. Unlike the situation in most reforestation projects, however, these trees were not planted by people. The river itself did the work. But it took a concerted effort by the Nature Conservancy, working with the tribe, federal agencies, and local governments, to put enough water in the river to do the job.

These cottonwood saplings grew from seeds that floated down on carefully controlled floods in the last two summers. They are the first visible signs of success for a cooperative effort to make a tightly controlled river that furnishes much water for farms and cities behave more like a free-running river. Scientists managed the river to mimic the natural flood cycles that were lost when water was diverted to farms and cities.

Natural cottonwood regeneration depends on just the right combination of spring floods and summer water levels; the levels must drop slowly enough that young tree roots beside the river can stay in contact with the declining water table. For the last two summers on the Truckee, those natural conditions have been artificially created with releases from reservoirs. Last year, the tribe experimented with excavated basins on the bare, gravelly banks to bring the ground surface a little closer to the water table and give the cottonwood seedlings an even better chance for survival. This spring, several of the basins were covered with tiny cottonwoods, grasses, and wildflowers.

If this newborn cottonwood forest survives and expands, the endangered Lahontan cutthroat trout and cui-ui will benefit from a narrower, shadier, and cooler river in which to spawn. Weeds that cover riverbanks will be crowded out by a healthy forest along the riparian zone and at least some of the 42 species of songbirds that currently avoid the hot riverbanks of the lower Truckee can be expected to return.

CONTACT: Jim Smitherman
Department of Conservation Nevada Division of Environmental Protection
(702) 687-4670

The Small Ranch Water Quality Program -
Teaching Residents about BMPs

The Small Ranch Water Quality Program was developed as a pilot program to teach suburban property owners about best management practices and decrease nonpoint source pollution in Dry Creek and ultimately in the Truckee River, Reno, Nevada's most important source of drinking water. The project watershed contains only 1,500 acres, but Reno's water treatment system serves about 164,000 people.

Program promotes land-use management

Pollutants such as nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, and salts are present in small amounts all over the Truckee River watershed, and their effect on the environment is cumulative. For example, sediments that accumulate downstream of Reno clog spawning gravels and smother fish eggs, and phosphorus and nitrogen stimulate algae growth, which leads to reduced levels of dissolved oxygen in the water and the death of coldwater fish such as trout. Therefore, a program that promotes land-use management techniques that reduce nonpoint source pollution along each small tributary can be expected to improve the overall water quality in the Truckee River.

BMPs also increase beauty

Agricultural experts were recruited from the University of Nevada, Reno, the Desert Research Institute, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey to teach a series of indoor classes and outdoor workshops. The program coordinator made individual visits to small ranches to document conditions and provide plans for best management practices. People opted to increase the beauty and value of their small ranch properties by adopting practices to protect the water and habitat of Dry Creek in southwest Reno. Among the practices demonstrated:

  • replacing lawns around wells with drought-tolerant vegetation,
  • pasture regrading and renovation,
  • no-till seeding,
  • composting (several projects and different methods),
  • grazing systems and fencing,
  • riparian plantings at creek side for temperature control, and
  • upsizing of septic systems.

Each summer participants hold a barbecue to celebrate progress and share success stories. The program, which is ongoing, was the first of its kind in Nevada, and quickly reached an audience of 450 ranchers. It recruited 61 ranches (14 percent) as active volunteer participants, and continues to recruit new participants through various outreach programs.

Promoting wise decisions

A Small Ranch Manual promoting management for green pastures and clean water was published and distributed to all homeowners in the Dry Creek watershed. This 96-page illustrated guide covers irrigation system management, erosion control, and animal waste management; care of wells and septic systems; control of weeds, rodents, and insects; landscape planning and care; and protection of creeks, ponds, ditches, and wet pastures. Photographs, diagrams, and tables of information were designed to assist wise decisions on property management. Using this manual and pooling their labor, residents worked very hard to improve their properties and the quality of water for everyone. The publication is now used in 30 states and five foreign countries, and has received a national publication award.

A monthly newsletter is distributed to 450 ranches. Each issue explains a relevant BMP in detail. A telephone tree network has been established to help organize work parties for BMP implementation. Demonstration projects completed to date include pasture renovations, planned grazing systems, structural measures and vegetation establishment for erosion control, planting of drought-tolerant species, animal waste composting and reuse, and noxious weed control.

Reductions in pollutants result

Water samples collected in Dry Creek in 1994 and 1995 will provide a baseline for monitoring trends in water quality. Monitoring of local irrigation water at one demonstration project site already has shown a drop in phosphorus levels from 2.1 grams/day to 0.5 grams/day, and reduction in suspended sediment from 238.7 g/day to 11 g/day.

In 1996, the Small Ranch Water Quality Program received two national awards, the Search for Excellence Award from the National Association of County Agricultural Agents and the Environmental Achievement Award from Renew America. The program has been written up in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (51[1]: 41-45).

CONTACT: Jim Smitherman
Department of Conservation Nevada Division of Environmental Protection
(702) 687-4670

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