The water level in the Truckee River as it leaves Lake Tahoe has slowly risen this past week, allowing for local rafting operations in Tahoe City to get back on the river for the first time since operations were halted on July 8.
The local rafting companies — Truckee River Rafting and Truckee River Raft Co. — received word on July 25 from the Federal Water Master in Reno that flow rates would be increased, likely allowing for rafting to continue through Labor Day weekend.
“Natural flow finally dropped off so we need to release from storage and at this point, the majority of that water is coming from Tahoe for Floriston Rates,” said Federal Water Master Chad Blanchard. “Boca’s storage this year is limited because of the construction.”
Boca Dam is being modified to resist seismic loads due to earthquakes, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and in order to facilitate construction, the reservoir is at around half capacity. To meet the required Floriston Rate (the measure of water flow at the station near Farad) of 500 cubic feet per second, more water is being spilled from the Lake Tahoe Dam.
“It’s all about demands downstream,” said Blanchard. “The natural flow finally dropped off enough so that the snowmelt and runoff dropped off below our targeted flows to where we have to release from storage to meet our demands.”
The flow rate from the Lake Tahoe Dam was measured at an average of 217.7 cubic feet per second on Wednesday, which is just enough for floating on the initial stretch of the river.
“It’s looking like it’s going to stay pretty constant. We actually have more water than we did on Fourth of July week,” said Truckee River Raft Co. owner Aaron Rudnick. “I would like 250 to 370 (cubic feet per second), anywhere around there, 300 — that’s money, that’s perfect.”
Blanchard indicated that the flow rate will likely increase slightly through the remainder of the summer.
“We’re still melting snow and the soil is still saturated, and as that drains out, the natural flow will drop, which means we’ll need more from storage to meet those flows,” he said. “It should work its way up, but there’s always weird stuff that could happen with parties that own the water. But at this point, we’d expect it to, over time, slowly rise a little bit … there should be solid releases from Tahoe for the remainder of summer.”
When the call is made to decrease the amount of water spilling from the Lake Tahoe Dam, the calls to Tahoe City’s rafting companies begin flooding in.
“We’ve had countless phone calls every day while we were closed,” said Rudnick. “People don’t understand that (the Federal Water Master) is bound by an incredibly complex set of rules. Most of the decisions he makes, aren’t his decisions to make.”
While there are other variables that come into play, the Water Master is tasked with keeping as much water as possible in Tahoe without exceeding the legal elevation of 6,229.1 feet. Flow rates must also be met downstream at Farad (Floriston Rates) where, during summer months, the flow rate must stay above 500 cubic feet per second. Lake Tahoe’s elevation was measured at 6,228.98 feet last Wednesday, and the flow rate at Farad was measured at 679 cubic feet per second.
The Truckee River Operating Agreement guides use of the river, which winds nearly 120 miles from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake. It was signed in 2008 by Nevada, California, the U.S. government, Truckee Meadows Water Authority, and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and its implementation began in late 2015. The agreement replaced a decades-old, rigid water managements system, which, according to the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, was dictated by court decrees designed to serve farmers, small hydroelectric plants, and now defunct paper mills.
For those recreating on the initial stretch of the Truckee River, the agreement means water levels will likely remain low during certain weeks of the summer.
“I don’t think anything is really going to change for us,” said Rudnick. “It would be nice, the GM over at Save Mart is telling us he’s 50% off his sales that he normally has because rafting is closed.”
Rudnick said the rafting companies are allowed to attend monthly meetings and voice concerns in regard to operating on the river.
“All these different agencies, from the trout agency and fish and wildlife to rafting to forest service to anyone who has something to do with that water, there is now more communication than there ever was in the past,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to change anything, but we get a voice … I don’t expect there ever to be any change with this federal body of water done just for us. Just the fact that we get a little input when we didn’t for 40 years, that’s progress to me.”
Orange and yellow paddles
After being forced off the water for several weeks, Tahoe City’s two rafting companies, along with any other floaters, are likely back on the Truckee for the remainder of the season, which runs through Labor Day.
“We’ve been busy ever since (reopening),” said Truckee River Rafting owner Richard Courcier. “This is our strongest time of the whole summer.”
Courcier indicated that while flows will likely remain adequate for rafting following Labor Day, the commercial season will come to an end.
“Used to (stay open later) but with schools going back as early as we do, we really lose all of the customers, and, not to mention, all our staff,” said Courcier. “We used to try and stay open on weekends, but it’s not worth it. Public rafters can still do it, and they’ll have a good time.”
Truckee River Rafting and Truckee Raft Co. offer self-guided trips along a roughly five-mile stretch of the Truckee River, beginning in Tahoe City. The river in that area is relatively leisurely with a few rapids and is suitable for ages 2 and older. The trips last roughly two to three hours. Prices at the two companies range from $30 to $50 depending on age and number of rafters.
“We’ve got a good flow right now,” said Courcier. “And if anything, (Blanchard) will raise the river just a little higher for an even better flow as we get into August.”
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.