Reno Looks West to Quench Thirst
January 22, 1990
Like many ranchers in the West, Fred Mallery is familiar with the tales of secret deals, bloody fights and quick riches that make up the region's water lore. These days Mallery is especially interested in the saga of the distant Owens Valley.
In a blitz of deceit and cash early this century, agents took control of the fertile valley's streams and pointed them 300 miles south to water a new desert metropolis -- Los Angeles. Today, sagebrush covers the valley's old farms, and Owens Lake, once crossed by ferries and barges, is a vast dust bed. It is an old story, but one that is on a lot of minds here along the Nevada border in northeastern California, where Mallery grows alfalfa and breeds cattle on his family's old homestead in the Honey Lake Valley.
For once again, an arid, growing city has come to an agricultural valley looking for water to ship south -- and the natives, fearing that history may repeat, have begun to fight. This time the thirsty invader is not Los Angeles nor even from California. It is Reno, 75 miles south of Mallery's farmhouse and hay barns. "We all know what happened in the Owens Valley," Mallery said recently. "The fear is here."
Booming Reno is bursting at the seams. New homes are spilling over mud-brown hills into dry desert valleys recently populated by coyotes and jack rabbits. But just as corn and hay cannot grow without water, neither can cities -- especially on the lee side of the Sierra Nevada, which extracts most of the moisture from Pacific storms before they sail over Reno and across the Great Basin.
Reno now gets most of its water from California by way of the Truckee River, which spills to life over a dam at the northwest corner of Lake Tahoe. But the Truckee's flow past Reno's downtown casinos is not enough for all the dishwashers, toilets and lawns that officials eagerly envision being installed in the 1990s on the city's expanding outskirts. A new master plan calls for extensive development in the rural areas around Reno and its neighbor city, Sparks, together the second-largest metropolitan area in fast-growing Nevada.
Officials in Washoe County, which includes Reno and Sparks, have made an ironic choice in tying their future to the Honey Lake area, site of an armed border skirmish involving California and Nevada. California won the rights to the shallow lake in the 1860s in a brief battle over border lines called the Sagebrush War. After the revolt -- led by Isaac Roop, a former governor of the Nevada territory -- failed, the state line was moved east to annex Honey Lake to California.
Washoe County has no plans to reassert Nevada's sovereignty over Honey Lake, and no exchange of gunfire is expected. But the Nevadans, since the early 1980s, have wanted to pump ground water from beneath Fish Springs Ranch on their side of the state line and pipe it south to Reno.
Here on the California side, Mallery and other ranchers say that the Nevada pumps could draw down the aquifer they say the two states share and thus harm the wells used to irrigate fields. They also complain that the Nevada pumps could lower the water table enough to dry up springs that seep naturally into some pastures and moisten wetlands used by deer and other wildlife.
"While this would be a more subtle result . . . it would be no less destructive," said Jack Hanson, president of the Lassen County Cattlemen's Assn., in a letter to a California Senate committee. "The potential effects on natural vegetation, wildlife and cattle grazing in the area would be severe."
Nevada's position is that the $80-million Truckee Meadows water project, as it is known, will have no impact in California. Franklyn Jeans, the Reno investor who is in charge of the project, insists that preliminary geological studies have found that a subterranean clay barrier separates the water beneath Fish Springs Ranch from the water basin beneath the California side. Thus, he says, the pumping in Nevada will not even be noticed in California.
The battle could turn on a crucial document to be released next month -- a U.S. Geological Survey report that will be the first independent study of whether such a barrier exists and of how much water is at stake. Jeans said he has offered to install monitoring wells so the California ranchers can keep an eye on the condition of the aquifers beneath the area. But Reno's plans have prompted wary officials in the lightly populated California mountains from Lake Tahoe north to the Oregon line to keep a close watch on the proposal.
Lassen and five nearby counties on the California side have begun meeting to keep tabs on Nevada's moves. The counties helped push the Legislature to create an agency that gave Lassen County ranchers and officials the power to negotiate with Nevada. The bill forming the Honey Lake ground water management district passed unanimously and was signed by Gov. George Deukmejian last Oct. 2.
"Our biggest fear is, 'Where do you stop them? Where do you draw the line when they get thirsty again?' " Mallery said. "We fear they will sweep through here like what happened in the Owens Valley." The Owens Valley story has struck a chord here because, according to Lassen County Supervisor Helen Williams, "It's an example of what has happened before when a larger entity preys upon a smaller entity. I think there is tremendous concern about what the environmental effects will be."
When Los Angeles long ago found itself in the same situation as Reno today -- coveting rapid growth but lacking water -- the city scoured the possibilities and sent agents bearing cash to the Owens Valley. In 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct began capturing most of the flow from the Owens River. Farmers lost their access to irrigation water, and many sold out to the city of Los Angeles. In the 1940s, Owens Lake finally dried up, leaving a 100-square-mile bed of caustic dust that winter winds blow over the California deserts.
Los Angeles -- which now owns nearly all of the pasture and rangeland in the valley -- also began pumping ground water in the 1940s. New wells in the 1970s were blamed by residents for lowering the water table, denuding the valley of hundreds of trees and forcing residents to drill new wells.
Jeans and Washoe County officials say they can understand the fears of Californians about another Owens Valley. "No doubt about it, there's a built-in fear," Jeans said. "It's an automatic knee-jerk reaction anywhere along the east slope of the Sierras." But, he added, the Truckee Meadows project "just isn't the same thing. This isn't a rape-and-pillage kind of thing." Nevada law forbids ground-water "mining" -- taking more water than nature replenishes -- and the Nevada state engineer will not issue the necessary permit unless the Geological Survey report and other studies show that there is enough water, Jeans said.
But the question of how much water Reno and Washoe County want is feeding the anxiety on the California side, especially in Lassen County, which includes the Honey Lake area. Lassen ranchers say the pipeline that will convey the water south to Reno is far larger than needed for the 20,000 acre-feet a year that Jeans said his project will eventually use. They fear that the rising value of water in the arid West could lead to some California ranchers switching from the cattle business to the water business by hooking their wells up to Jeans' pipeline.
Jeans himself set such an example. He and his partners bought the Fish Springs Ranch several years ago, intending to raise cattle and alfalfa. Then he found that there was more money to be made farming water, Jeans said. But Jeans said the larger capacity of the pipeline to Reno is needed to allow for heavier flows in summer, when Reno's other water sources are less reliable.
Lassen officials also say they do not know how much water they will need for their own growth. The area has grown from 21,000 people in 1980 to nearly 30,000 now and has been one of the fastest-developing areas in California in recent years. Planning Director Bob Sorvaag said another 6,000 people could arrive in the next few years, some drawn by new industry and some by expansion of a state prison outside Susanville, the county seat.
In an unusual move to ease tensions across the state lines, the elected officials of Washoe County came to Susanville last month for a public meeting with the Lassen County Board of Supervisors. While still wary, the rivals have at least begun talking. "The relationship is improving," Jeans said. Both sides said they hope to avoid the cumbersome legal maneuvering that typically delays efforts by states to settle water differences.
For instance, California and Nevada negotiated 13 years on a compact to divvy up water from Lake Tahoe and three major rivers. Once each state gave its approval, the compact waited 15 years in vain for congressional approval before California and Nevada gave up trying. Even a relatively uncontroversial pact over water in the Goose Lake area did not pass Congress for 21 years after it was ratified by Oregon and California.
© Los Angeles Times 1990