The only significant source of water for Walker Lake is the Walker River. Walker Lake has no water rights of its own. The only water that is guaranteed for the lake is water that escapes diversion. For more than a century, the Walker River system has been over-appropriated at about 140 percent for agricultural and other economic interests leaving little or no water for Walker Lake during nonflood years. The surface of Walker Lake has dropped more than 160 feet since the 1880s. Walker Lake is a remnant of prehistoric Lake Lahontan, which at its greatest extent is estimated to have covered over 8,000 square miles of northwestern Nevada. Quoting limnologist Dr. Alex Horne of California-Berkeley, Walker Lake is a "rare and endangered species of lake" of which only a "handful exists in all of North America and on Earth."
Walker Lake's water supply comes from snowmelt and rainfall draining east off the Sierra. Flows reaching the Lake from the Walker River have decreased by two-thirds, from 285,000 acre-ft/year to 90,000 acre-ft/year since 1882 because of the combination of over-appropriation, reservoirs and groundwater pumping. The shoreline has receded as much as seven miles since 1882.
If Walker Lake levels continue to decline, the lake's alkalinity will increase to the point native or stocked fish can no longer survive. The Nevada Department of Wildlife has said that if the conditions of the Walker Lake did not change, we could lose Walker Lake as trout fishery.
The Walker Lake Working Group was formed in 1991 by people who were greatly alarmed by the dropping lake level and degradation of water quality.
The water crisis came to a dramatic point in 1994 when the lake level dropped to its lowest point in years. The salinity or Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) in Walker Lake had increased dramatically, and jeopardized the lake's entire aquatic ecosystem. Several species of invertebrates disappeared and the [a] tui chub did not reproduce. Fishermen complained that the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout were small, deformed, and diseased. These signs indicated that the trouts' food-chain and the lake's ecosystem was in great danger.
An unusually wet year followed in 1995, and the water level at Walker Lake rose and the TDS level lowered. However, lack of regular water flows to Walker Lake has led to the overall decline of water at the lake that is now at an all-time low. Tui chub have not reproduced normally for more than five years
In May 2000, the Walker Lake Working Group stepped up efforts to avoid this situation and, in conjunction with Mineral County, purchased land with water rights in Mason Valley. For the first time, Walker Lake Working Group and Mineral County were able to have a say during Walker River Irrigation District meetings as a member. However, prolonged discussions with upstream users so far have not resulted in a long-term solution for Walker Lake.
Other lake-preservation measures that the Walker Lake Working Group has undertaken include a request to intervene in case of United States et. al. v. Walker River Irrigation District. In this the Federal District Court case, Mineral County is seeking to argue that any allocation of water within the Walker River Basin must be consistent with the Public Trust Doctrine. That doctrine requires that water resources be preserved for public uses including navigation, commerce, fisheries, recreation and wildlife.
As evidenced by the fact that the water in the Walker River system is allocated to out-of-stream uses, and the dire ecological condition of Walker Lake, the state of Nevada has not managed this public resource consistently with the Public Trust Doctrine. As a result, the distribution of water in the basin must be reevaluated in consideration of the public’s interest in Walker Lake and the state of Nevada’s obligations to manage these waters in the public trust.
The Walker Lake Working Group and its conservation partners believe that it is poor public policy to allow a unique desert ecosystem to collapse as a result of human-caused activities. Somehow, we must get water to Walker Lake to save this important wildlife habitat that contributes up to 40 percent of Mineral County's economy through tourism. You can help. See help/donate.
Walker Lake Working group