Lack of water quality threatening Walker Lake fish

Lahontan Cutthroat trout and other native wildlife may have to find a new place to live if water quality does not improve at Walker Lake within the next two years.

Salt levels in the lake have almost reached what they were during droughts seven years ago when the lake's water level was at its lowest, said Chris Drake, fisheries biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

The increase in salinity has been caused primarily by natural sources, but aggravated by upstream irrigation that drains water from the lake. The more the water level decreases, the more the salt increases, Drake said.

But will Walker Lake turn into a mud puddle or even a smaller version of the Dead Sea, unable to support its ecosystem?

Not if biologists and local activists have anything to do with it.

To increase the Lahontan Cutthroat's chance of survival the Nevada Division of Wildlife has been placing the trout in salt water eight to 20 hours before releasing them in the lake. This acclimation process has been "very critical for survival" and has increased survival rates to 95 to 98 percent. Thirty to 90 percent of fish not acclimated die, Drake said.

"(The problem) this past spring was that even acclimated fish were dying," Drake said.

If this continues, the Lahontan Cutthroat may no longer be stocked in the lake, he said.

The Walker Lake Working Group - a group of concerned Mineral County citizens - and Mineral County intend to file a lawsuit against the federal EPA for not requiring the state to set water quality standards, said Louis Thompson, chairman of the group.

The Nevada Supreme Court decided in April that Walker Lake water quality is a federal issue. The Nevada Legislature turned down a bill earlier this year that would have set water quality standards for the lake, stating proposed water quality standards would hurt local agriculture.

Thompson said the state is obligated to set water quality standards under the Clean Water Act, but it has not done so.

"We're hopeful that the federal EPA will come in and set water quality standards," Thompson said. "But that in itself will not get a drop of water in the lake."

"I think people should dump a gallon of fresh water in the lake every time they drive by, just as a symbolic gesture," said Elsie Dupris, president of the Nevada Wildlife Federation.

More concrete solutions, Thompson said, include buying water rights from farmers and Native American tribes, introducing new water-saving irrigation systems and planting crops that require less water than alfalfa, the main crop grown by farmers in the area.


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