Carson River: A mind of its own
Perhaps the best approach to managing the Carson River is simply to stay out of its way.
“You can choose to live with the river or fight it,” said Chris Maser, an Oregon-based river management consultant who moderated Monday’s Carson River Conference. “If you fight it, you’ll spend a lot and you’ll (eventually) lose – because nature always bats last.”
Maser, who said he learned that lesson the hard way on watercourses throughout Asia, the Americas and Africa’s Nile, set a philosophical tone to the day-long meeting.
More than 250 attendees included federal, state and local officials, ranchers and farmers, environmentalists, interested residents and invited experts. Many participants hailed from areas all along the Carson – from its headwaters in Alpine County (Calif.), through Douglas County, Carson City and Lyon County to the Carson Sink in Churchill County, the river’s final destination.
After clocking more than 20,000 hours of volunteer and professional time working on the Carson since the Jan. ’97 flood, attendees shared their knowledge of the river, various community issues, problems and thoughts about how the river should be treated in specific areas and as a whole.
“This is where people with diverse interests can come together to focus on the watershed and make decisions to define (their) objectives and develop a strategy – and not from the top down, but at a grass roots level,” said keynote speaker U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan. “And they can do it with government as a partner in the enterprise, not the master.”
Sen. Harry Reid, who also spoke at the conference, said he saw no need for federal intervention to solve problems on the Carson. He said the Alpine Decree, which governs water distribution on the Carson, was recognized in the Truckee River Operating Agreement, a negotiated settlement reached in 1990.
“Here (on the Carson) we have an opportunity to bring all the partners together to work out solutions,” Reid said. “The negotiated settlement (which involved the states of California and Nevada, Sierra Pacific Power Co., the federal government and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe) was needed to clear up a century of conflict on the Truckee.”
Reid said he was interested in hearing clean-up recommendations for acid run-off pollution from the Leviathan Mine area on the Upper Carson and pledged his support on the Senate’s Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee to help implement river management strategies that arise from the effort.
Workshop participants discussed river management and accommodation strategies, including engineering solutions which could straight-jacket the river in narrow concrete levees (Los Angeles-style), floodwater by-pass diversions, dams and levees set far enough back from the river banks to allow agricultural uses and parks between them and the river – operations which would cost considerably less to restore than industrial or residential structures when damaged by floods.
The groups examined practices which have been successful and those which were unsuccessful on the Carson.
n What works. Planting willows and occasionally using heavy gravel riprap to stabilize banks and slow fast-moving floodwaters have gotten good results along some portions of the Carson.
Current ditch diversions on the Carson have worked not only to keep agriculture lands green, but also to help dissipate heavy flows onto the floodplain and help prevent more severe flooding downstream.
The river’s natural meanders serve to slow flows and should be preserved.
Local zoning which keeps the bulk of industrial and residential development away from flood-prone areas has served to keep property losses along the Carson fairly low when compared to areas along the Truckee River and in California.
n What should be changed. More strategies to improve water quality (particularly with regard to levels of sulpher and mercury contamination) without increasing the severity of those problems should be explored and implemented.
Flood planning should be approached regionally, with communities acting in concert, keeping in mind the power, potential dangers and devastation wrought by raging waters. And a single agency should coordinate the entire process, and be accountable so things get done.
Finally, the legal permitting system, which regulates remedial work in and along the river, should be streamlined, particularly in times of great need.
n What we don’t know. The groups also determined areas that need more research and discussion.
n Should the Upper Carson sustain a fishery?
n Would mandated flows from small, above or below ground water storage reservoirs improve the river’s water quality by diluting contaminants and lowering its temperature at different times of the year?
n How should land owners’ rights to develop their river property be balanced with community pressures to keep the river scenic and healthy?
Douglas County Commissioner Jacques Etchegoyhen said he believes agricultural areas and conservation lands along the river could be preserved and property owners could be compensated through a Bureau of Land Management program, the Rural Lands Initiative, which would use the proceeds of a sale of BLM lands in Lincoln County to purchase the development rights of land owners along the Carson.
“We see it as a way to avoid windfall and wipeout zoning, keeping development from moving into the river corridor and preserving critical ag and wildlife lands,” Etchegoyhen said. “It makes sense. Like my grandfather (Victor) McPartland, who homesteaded on the Truckee, used to say, ‘If you don’t dance with the river in Nevada, you have no partner.'”
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