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From not enough water to too much: Floods in Nevada bring pain and relief


From not enough water to too much: Floods in Nevada bring pain and relief

Sep 25, 2023 | 8:46 am ET
By Jeniffer Solis
From not enough water to too much: Floods in Nevada bring pain and relief
Miles of flooding on US-95 between Las Vegas and Fallon. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis/Nevada Current)

This story is the first in a series. Find part two on environmental consequences here.

It’s the second year in a row the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe have had to hook tarps over roofs torn apart by historic storms and prepare temporary shelter for shaken residents.  

The tribe has lived in what’s now known as the Death Valley National Park since time immemorial, and is one of only a handful of tribes to retain territory within the park system. Today, several remaining members live in highly altered adobe homes that are nearly a century old.

The homes are important, historic, says the tribe. The portions still standing are daily reminders that they’ve never left, and never will.

But the century old homes are no match for an altering climate that is disrupting the usual balance of nature. Last year, the first adobe roof caved in when a once-in-a-thousand-year storm tore through Death Valley National Park, leaving about a thousand people stranded after flash flooding ripped apart roads.

In the tribe’s village, dozens of people worked overnight to pump flood water out of an elder’s home after his adobe roof collapsed.

The second roof to cave in was this summer when Hurricane Hilary — the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in 84 years — made its way to Southern Nevada as a sub-tropical storm, where it caused intense floods and structural damage.

Hilary dumped a year’s worth of rain on Death Valley, setting a new single-day rainfall record of 2.2 inches. The previous record of 1.70 inches was set a year earlier in August 2022. Miles of flood water circled the tribe’s entire village near the Nevada-California border, leaving residents trapped on an island of dry land for two days before the National Park Service set up an emergency road. 

The adobe homes were built for the tribe by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, but the Park Service tried to demolish them several times while the Timbisha Shoshone migrated during the summers for cooler mountainous elevations where piñon nuts, mesquite beans, roots and berries were harvested. 

“They were hoping that in time we would leave, and they could wash the adobe homes out,” said Mandi Campbell, the historic preservation officer for the tribe. 

“We have six of them left. There are two where part of the roof has collapsed. Another one is about to collapse, not just from this storm, but all the storms put together,” she continued.

Nevada broke its rainfall records this year, more than doubling to 9.20 inches of rain, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Weather Prediction Center. After record rains, more than three-quarters of Nevada is now fully drought free for the first time since April 2020. It’s a vast improvement from the same time last year, when 99.5% of the state was in severe drought.

For Nevada in recent years, it’s either feast or famine.

But the water starved soil and sun-blasted vegetation of Nevada are not designed to accept a deluge of moisture overnight. Extremely dry habitats can’t absorb water fast enough to pull it from the surface, leaving the desert no choice but to flood. 

‘Our community could have been wiped out’

It’s estimated that flooding this year caused a combined $20 million in damages to state infrastructure, says the Nevada Division of Emergency Management. A little more soil erosion in a particularly hard working dam on the Walker River in west central Nevada could have resulted in something worse.

Homes along the Walker River were surrounded by sandbags wrapped in plastic, and just outside the town of Schurz, hundreds more tightly packed thermoplastic sacks were on standby. One homeowner had already been evacuated, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs warned the residents of the Walker River Indian Reservation that a possible dam failure could lead to many more. 

In short, if the record-breaking runoff from melting snow continued and the early signs of erosion under the Weber Reservoir Dam progressed, over 71,000 cubic feet of water per second would rip through the town of Schurz for about 90 minutes.

After years of extreme drought, snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which feeds Nevada’s Walker River, reached record-breaking levels last winter. Snow melt measurements across the Carson and Walker basins this summer surpassed all previous peak snow melt amounts for any year back to 1981, according to data from Natural Resources Conservation Service monitoring stations. 

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which manages the dam, called the six month flood in the Walker River basin brought by atmospheric rivers and melting snow a “once in five hundred years” event. 

Erosion and sediment buildup under the part of the dam used for controlled releases was likely made worse by months of high water releases through the reservoir to prevent overflow. During an inspection of the dam in May, engineers found structural damage that “could have potentially progressed into a life-threatening event.”

Andrea Martinez, chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said the federal government has failed to maintain the dam for years, leaving it vulnerable to potentially catastrophic damage. 

“Our community could have been wiped out if our dam integrity was compromised,” Martinez said.

Ultimately, the dam is not designed to handle months of record breaking water flow through the semi-arid Walker River basin. The average stream flow into the Weber Reservoir at the peak of summer, dating back to 1901, is about 250 cubic feet per second. This year, stream flow into the reservoir at its peak was 1,750 cubic feet per second — seven times the average stream flow into the reservoir during a normal year.

Flood water released from the dam eroded canals, damaged roads, and threatened to knock down an NV Energy power pole near the river bank in Schurz. The last flood to cause as much damage to the tribe and state was just six years ago, when too much snowmelt and rain overwhelmed waterways. That same year wildfires in Nevada — fed by dead and withered shrubs — burned more than a million acres of land.  

The problem with thresholds

Nevada, like much of the United States, is facing a growing challenge of too much water in some places and not enough water in others. It’s difficult to link one single weather event to climate change, but climate scientists say the devastating drought and floods in the Southwest are in line with what they’ve been predicting.

The longest lasting damage is centered on rural communities with the least resources, like Schurz and the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe. 

Furthermore, recovery experts say the Federal Emergency Management Agency is not currently designed to help tribes recover from back-to-back flooding events. States must meet a strict threshold for every disaster level event to qualify for federal disaster assistance. 

That threshold is based on total monetary damage, meaning if two towns are hit with a flood, and one town avoids serious damage due to a well developed flood management infrastructure, and the other town with minimal flooding infrastructure gets the brunt of the damage, the damaged town is likely to get stuck with the bill if the state, as a whole, fails to meet the standard. 

That’s often the case for tribes in Nevada.

“The state wasn’t able to meet their threshold in submitting for the federal emergency declaration this year,” said Josie Burnett, the state tribal liaison for the Nevada Division of Emergency Management.

“It kind of left counties, like Lyon County and the Walker River Paiute Tribe, on their own to figure out how they’re going to get those funds to work on those repairs, since the state didn’t meet that threshold,” she continued. “We weren’t able to, you know, provide that funding to them.”

At the Weber Reservoir Dam on the Walker River Paiute Tribe reservation, trenches were installed to slow erosion, and the reservoir held. The worst case scenario passed, and within months celebrations, like the annual Pinenut Festival, continued. 

Initially, the tribe had a hard time gathering the resources they needed to protect Schurz, said Martinez of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. She still thinks about how “catastrophic” a dam failure could have been.

Campbell, the historic preservation officer for the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, said the damaged adobe homes they’ve kept standing for decades and community buildings will take time to repair. She thinks back to the night tropical storm Hilary rolled into Death Valley.

“When I woke up that morning, it didn’t even look like it stormed. You could smell the rain out there. I went outside and it was beautiful, because when it rains, it wipes the dust off the mountains, and you can see all the layers of color,” Campbell said.

“Then we started getting alerts. We were flooded in.”

This series was made possible with a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources