A dam site longer than anticipated
Cool temperatures and a below average winter make it unlikely Carson Valley will experience significant river flooding this spring.
But a combination of sudden precipitation and warm temperatures can melt off the snowpack in a hurry, sending raging waters down both forks of the Carson River as it has in years like 1950, 1955, 1963, 1997 and 2017, among others.
It has been 30 years since the last time a dam was seriously considered on the East Fork as a means to reduce flooding and increase water for agriculture and other uses.
The East Fork begins near the base of Sonora Peak in California. The river’s upper gorge was carved out by a 16-mile glacier coming off the 11,500-foot high mountain.
It is one of only two major free-flowing rivers in the Eastern Sierra.
While the water in the Carson River is fully appropriated, officials believed periodic flooding could fill a reservoir and reduce the severity of floods in Carson Valley.
Peak flows on the East Fork at Markleeville have ranged from 586 cubic feet per second during the drought year of 1977 to 18,900 cubic feet per second during the 1997 New Years Flood.
More than a century ago, engineers were probing the banks of the East Fork looking for a site suitable for a dam.
The East Fork was originally included in the Newlands Project proposed at the dawn of the 20th Century. Designed to bring irrigation water to Western Nevada, it included the Derby and Lahontan dams. Today the project provides water to 57,000 acres of cropland in Lahontan Valley.
The Truckee-Carson Project was first proposed in 1902 and is one of the first reclamation projects and authorized in 1903.
According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the project included construction of Lake Tahoe Dam, Derby Dam, the Truckee Canal and the Lahontan Dam.
A century ago, the Horseshoe Dam, named after the bend in the East Fork, was proposed for nine miles above Garderville. That dam was proposed to be 222 feet high, cost $1.3 million and back up 50,000 acre feet of water.
In a 1918 letter to The Record-Courier, former editor Capt. George Springmeyer said that three units were approved with the original legislation, including the “Alpine or Upper Carson.”
A board of Army engineers was created to survey the projects, which they did for the first two units, but not the Upper Carson.
“As soon as the farmers in Douglas County adopt the resolution required by the Reclamation Service, whereby they turn over their water to the government and receive in return … a guaranteed water right, the reservoirs at the headwaters of the Carson River will be built, notwithstanding that the government cannot appropriate any money for new projects.”
Because that survey never occurred, the East Fork Dam was considered a new project and would have to wait for new appropriations, something that was unlikely during World War I.
“The entire future of Carson Valley rests with establishment of a government storage system by which the arid lands of this fertile Valley may be reclaimed,” Editor Bert Selkirk wrote in 1919. “The farms already under cultivation have even passed the normal supply of water. The limit of our farming possibilities has been reached and … and future expansion of agriculture depends entirely upon a government storage system.”
It would be three decades later that the Bureau of Reclamation decided to survey the east and west forks for potential dam sites.
“Although the Bureau of Reclamation has always been interested in further storage and power development on the Carson River, little effort has been made in that direction due to lack of interest by the residents of Carson Valley,” Lahontan Basin District Engineer William F. Slattery was reported saying in the Oct. 28, 1949, edition of The Record-Courier.
But it was at a point, 65 years ago, that it actually appeared as if a dam would be built.
Excitement about the dam was spurred by the Dec. 23, 1955, flood, the most damaging in Carson Valley history at the time and not exceeded until the 1997 New Year’s flood.
Called the Watasheamu Dam project, it was formally proposed in 1955 and would have been funded by a water conservancy formed by the Nevada Legislature.
On Aug. 1, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law a $43.7 million project on the Carson and Truckee rivers. However, once more the law didn’t include actual funding for all the projects. The dam on the East Fork was estimated to cost $10 million, according to the Aug. 2, 1956 edition of The R-C.
In November 1956, the Bureau of Reclamation filed for the 115,000 acre feet of water rights required to fill the dam.
Reclamation engineers told Valley residents in 1959 the dam could be raised 20 feet, increasing the storage capacity to 160,000 acre feet, at a cost of $11.7 million.
By 1960, federal officials were anticipating construction of the dam, even suggesting it take precedence over the Stampede Reservoir dam proposed in the same legislation. Work on the Prosser Creek dam was already underway. In 1961, subconservancy officials and local ranchers were pressing Nevada’s congressional delegation to commit federal funds to the dam project. Estimates of the dam’s pricetag had risen to $22.2 million in April 1961. The following month, a contract setting out the repayment plan was presented to the Carson Water Subconservancy District. Irrigators were only expected to pay $3.375 million of the dam costs, while power generation was expected to raise $14.4 million. In June 1962, subconservancy directors asked that contracts for annual payments be reduced to $42,000, below the minimum $50,000 called for in the main contract for the entire Washoe Project before work would begin on the project.
That sticking point plagued the effort through 1963, in which the Carson district sought that the Carson-Truckee Water Conservancy District agree to contribute should the dam fail to develop anticipated water, thus hurting the ability to repay their obligations. Officials pointed out that the Stampede Dam project would subsidize over half of the cost of the Watasheamu Dam.
“…it is very doubtful in Watasheamu Dam could ever be built on its own merits in the future with irrigations as its main function,” said Bureau of Reclamation representative H. Smith Richards about the need for Carson Valley ranchers to sign up in February 1964.
By March, members of the Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce were told by Sierra Pacific Power Co. that it would not be producing power with the water it buys, because the water flow wouldn’t be dependable during peak demand periods.
Residents were told In April 1965, the deadline to obtain subscriptions was February 1967. At that same meeting, Fred Dressler protested the proposal, saying he “couldn’t see the justice of one family, which had fought to settle their land, now paying the lion’s share for a dam which they, personally did not need, and which, for the most part, would provide the benefits for the ‘newcomers.’”
By 1968, the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, which regulates water use in Lake Lahontan, came out against the dam. The action was a response to a plan to maximize flows on the Carson River for the Newlands Project so that more water flowed into Pyramid Lake from the Truckee.
“Now that the TCID has opposed the project, it may be the final blow,” Subconservancy District Manager Garry Stone said.
In April 1969, the Nevada Legislature revived the project by giving the subconservancy the right to use property tax to build the dam, some of whose waters would then be used for municipal and industrial purposes. According to Stone, Douglas and Carson requested 12,000 acre feet each, in addition to 15,000 acre feet from farmers and ranchers. The entire project only had 41,000 acre feet available at the time.
But by the end of the year, the subonservancy was ready to throw in the towel and voted to pursue other avenues.
“The time has come when the subdistrict must accept the fact that there is very little chance for constructing a reservoir following the present guidelines,” Stone said in the Feb. 5, 1970 R-C.
By 1984, the dam had been priced out of range of Carson Valley ranchers. While capable of supporting itself in the 1960s, increased construction costs would have resulted in it raising 25 cents on the dollar, according to a Record-Courier article.
The Nevada Legislature took up what was then proposed as a smaller Bodie Dam in 1987 with legislation that would have allowed the Carson Water Subconservancy District to increase taxes to fund a $400,000 study on the dam’s need. That dam would have been located six miles southeast of Gardnerville, not far from the California border.
The price tag for the dam quoted in 1987 was $117 million and would require a decade to build and would create a six-mile long reservoir.
The final nail in the dam’s coffin was in 1989, when the California Legislature designated as wild and scenic a 10-mile stretch of the East Fork from Hangman’s Bridge near Markleeville to the California-Nevada border.