2010 Annual Report

Reduced freshwater flow to Walker Lake has wiped out its population of Lahontan cutthroat trout, now a federally listed threatened species. NFWF is addressing the lake’s decline through the Walker Basin Restoration Program, which in its first year of operation concluded agreements to produce 10 percent of the total acre-feet needed.

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Restoring Water to a Dying Lake

In 2009, in the small town of Hawthorne, Nevada, the Walker Lake Working Group cancelled its annual Loon Festival. The event once brought hundreds of visitors to the shores of this 50-square-mile lake, 85 miles southeast of Reno, but the ongoing loss of fresh water flows to the lake has caused its elevation to drop nearly 150 feet during the past century.

Without abundant fresh water, fish like the native Lahontan cutthroat trout and tui chub have declined or been lost; without the fish, fewer migratory waterfowl visit each spring. And without loons, grebes, cormorants and white pelicans, an event that brought hundreds of tourists to this rare high-desert oasis has been suspended.

Since 2002, efforts have been underway to restore Walker Lake in a way that balances the needs of its wildlife and the needs of the local agricultural community. The Walker Basin Restoration Program was established to purchase water from willing sellers, helping the lake to recover and improving the health of the Walker River, its watershed, and upstream agricultural communities.

  • 50 square miles of current surface area in Walker Lake
  • 150 total feet decline in surface elevation in the last century
  • 10% of the acre-feet needed to restore walker lake secured by agreements in 2010

Salinity in Walker Lake has increased dramatically as a result of declining water levels, which together with dams and upstream water diversions have had significant adverse impacts on both lake and river ecology. Lahontan cutthroat trout, named for the prehistoric lake that once covered much of northern Nevada, once routinely weighed 30 pounds or more; now, they’re a federally listed threatened species. The tui chub, a smaller fish that provides an essential food source for both the trout and waterfowl, is also under stress. Water acquisition efforts, aided by a few wet years, could help reverse the trend.

Since assuming leadership of the Walker Basin Restoration Program in January 2010, NFWF has closed on five voluntary purchase and sale agreements with individual landowners in the Basin. The surface and ground water rights represent approximately 10 percent of what is likely to be needed to restore Walker Lake to ecological health over time. Several of these agreements also include the acquisition of lands that provide important habitat for plants and wildlife. In the coming months, a grant agreement with the Walker River Irrigation District for a demonstration water leasing program is also expected to be finalized.

NFWF also supports research on ways to improve water quality and the ecology of the Walker Basin watershed while sustaining a strong local economy. Those studies are being conducted under a grant agreement with the University of Nevada-Reno and the Desert Research Institute, whose early work in the Basin provided an important foundation for current efforts.

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