Upstream solutions lead to downstream problems for Tribal plants and animals
Sometimes the Pyramid Lake Fisheries director peers out from Popcorn Rock — a humorously shaped chunk of limestone — to watch the delta where the mouth of the Truckee River meets the lake.
Through his tenure with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Mervin Wright has helped thousands of threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout and endangered cui-ui suckers successfully spawn in the river’s channel bed.
But this summer, the delta view is alarming. Rapid stream flow from months of flooding reshaped the river delta into a divvy of shallow pools surrounded by dislodged mud, debris, and sediment.
“I’ve never seen it look the way it does today,” Wright said from his office overlooking the lake in June.
Far out into the lake, where the water typically remains a vibrant blue, plums of coffee colored water encroached further than in years prior.
Water dissolves almost everything with enough time. Water carved the Grand Canyon and Lehman Caves, and every year it carves more soil and rock off of Truckee River’s banks.
It’s a part of nature, says Donna Marie Noel, the director of the natural resources department for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. But high flows like the ones this summer happen too quickly and for too long, eroding the river banks at an alarming pace.
“As it gets higher, it just starts undercutting the stream and you get big chunks of it falling into the river,” Marie Noel said.
Upstream, cities and counties have dealt with erosion and flooding by straightening the river and armoring its crumbling banks with concrete and rocks.
It only transfers the problem downstream where tribes, like the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Walker River Paiute Tribe, are left to deal with faster and more destructive flows.
“The flood projects they’re doing up in Reno are going to decrease the water that’s inundating Sparks and the industrial area, but it does increase the flow in the lower river,” said Marie Noel.
Family fields near the river are being eaten away by uncontrolled flooding and erosion, says Aaron Bill, the water quality manager for the tribe — including his own. It’s a big topic during monthly council meetings. But the tribe has no control over what’s done upstream, they can only mitigate the consequences.
A toll on wildlife and vegetation
High water flows from powerful floods tear apart the river bank and creep into floodplains, washing Nevada’s salt-rich soils into downstream lakes. A lot of resources are put into tracking and measuring dissolved solids and salts in Pyramid Lake, says Marie Noel.
“Salt is pretty much everywhere, but it’s hard to get rid of,” Marie Noel said. “That’s kind of what happened to Walker Lake, too much dissolved solids killed off all the fish.”
It is a real risk to aquatic life, including the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout and the endangered cui-ui suckers who inhabit the lake. If the salt content on the delta and in the lower Truckee River gets too high, essential moisture is pulled from the fragile eggs of spawning fish — on a rudimentary level, it’s the same process used to cure roe for caviar.
Ideally, the mouth of a river should be narrow and deep. But sediment buildup makes the delta in Pyramid Lake too shallow and wide to protect spawning fish from opportunistic predators, says Wright, the director of the Pyramid Lake Fisheries. Over five months of flooding, Wright estimates that about 93 million cubic yards of material was deposited in the delta. That much displaced sediment along the river also has the potential to cover fertilized eggs, suffocating them with mounds of mud.
“That’s why you see a lot of pelicans over there,” he continued. It’s sort of like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” for the fish.
One condition that hasn’t changed since Wright served on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency national advisory panel years ago, he says, massive sections of the river bank are still exposed and eroding.
“There’s no vegetation, no trees, there’s nothing,” Wright said. “They want to do different things up there, so that the water that reaches Truckee Meadows can be evacuated quicker. Well, it’s gonna end up down here. And what are they doing down here? How are they helping us down here?”
From March to July, Pyramid Lake rose by about four feet, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. After four years of drought and shrinking water levels, the increase is welcome, says the tribe, despite the myriad of cons.
‘Heading straight for us
The desert is flushed in green this summer, but scars from flooding damage have been left behind. Pools of water rot and uproot plants that are not meant to sit in waterlogged soil for months on end. Alongside roads, patches of land scrubbed of living vegetation leave chalky white impressions, like the dried out remains of Winnemucca Lake. Occasionally, you can spot a dust devil twisting on one of the dusty beds.
Tropical storm Hilary in August was the first to make landfall in Southern California since 1939. The storm brought record-breaking rainfall leading to widespread life-threatening flash flooding, mud and rockslides, and debris flows to the Mojave Desert. Death Valley National Park experienced its rainiest day on record, and left hundreds of visitors and residents trapped as roads closed due to flooding, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Flooding is a growing problem for the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, says Mandi Campbell, the historic preservation officer for the tribe. Much of the willows, wild mesquite shrubs, and rabbitbrush that used to dot the tribe’s reservation in Death Valley have been uprooted by floods. Other vegetation is getting thinner and dying due to years of drought.
The last year the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe faced such a massive flood was in 2022, the fifth-warmest year on record for the globe since 1880, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The past eight years have been the hottest on record, and there’s a 50% change 2023 will be the hottest of them all.
“The floods are getting worse because of climate change. There’s no vegetation out there to help divert the flow of floods, so instead it’s heading straight for us,” Campbell said.
This year, the tribe lost a hundred-year-old piñon pine to record floods brought on by tropical storm Hilary in August. It’s a great loss, says Campbell. Drought-stress and root damage from drought and floods over the years have already made the pines vulnerable to growing bark beetle infestation, cutting down the amount of pines the tribe can harvest pine nuts from.
“We usually go up there to pick pine nuts, but there are none right now,” Campbell said. “The beetles have been eating them because of all the moisture. Some of my family went up there, and they said when they picked up one of the cones and tried to grab a pine nut, it just turned into powder.”
The native mesquite grove near the tribe’s village is holding up for now. Campbell says her ancestors used to grind mesquite beans to make flour, syrup, and other foods.
Evidence of Timbisha Shoshone surviving in Death Valley for generations is present in the landscape, including Grinding Rock, a limestone bedrock with deep holes on its surface created by continuously grinding mesquite. The site was eventully surrounded by asphalt and sits near the lower parking lot of The Inn at Death Valley.
The site is spiritual, says Campbell. Parts of it have washed away during flash floods in recent years. Everytime there’s a big one, she goes to check and clear the site. Tropical storm Hilary buried it in sand and mud, as storms did last year.
There’s an understanding among Nevada’s tribes that some of the damage to the land can’t be undone, says Wright, the Pyramid Lake Fisheries director. He mentions Winnemucca Lake. In the 1930’s, the lake dried out when water flow was cut off by the construction of Derby Dam on the Truckee River and State Route 447. It almost took Pyramid Lake with it, which dropped by about 80 feet.
“We look back at it now and see it as a mistake,” Wright said. “When it comes to our traditional knowledge, it’s not about trying to control nature. Nature can be very unkind when you start messing with it. It’s gonna come back and kick you in the teeth.”
This series was made possible with a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources