Anyone who thinks of Nevada as a giant desert needs to visit the Lahontan Valley wetlands, 60 miles east of Reno in the Carson River basin. With more than 280 species of shorebirds and waterfowl, perchers and raptors, the valley is a birder’s paradise, defined by the National Audubon Society as “the most important waterfowl breeding and migratory site in Nevada,” as well as a place “critical to many species using the Pacific Flyway.”
Pelicans, herons, egrets and hawks often are seen at the nearby Lahontan Reservoir, a popular place to camp, boat and fish. The reservoir stores water behind the historic Lahontan Dam, one of the first projects of the nation’s brand new U.S. Reclamation Service (now the Bureau of Reclamation), established by the Reclamation Act of 1902. Lahontan Dam and its power station were part of the celebrated Newland’s Project (originally known as the Truckee-Carson Project), which was the first to deliver water from works constructed, not by private interests, but by the Federal Government.
The Newlands Project takes water from Nevada’s Truckee and Carson River basins to irrigate the Carson Desert and provide hydroelectric power. When launched in 1903, the project aimed to attract homesteaders and create communities, which is exactly what it did. Today’s tree-shaded town of Fallon, for instance, was incorporated in 1908 and calls itself “the Oasis of the Desert.” In times gone by, as travel writer David W. Tolls states, Fallon’s Hearts O' Gold cantaloupes, grown on irrigated lands, graced the menus of fine hotels and restaurants, and its turkeys brought premium prices. Today, Nevada agriculture centers primarily on livestock and alfalfa hay, but Fallon still celebrates its melons in the annual Hearts O’ Gold Cantaloupe Festival and Fair, held every Labor Day weekend.
It all harkens back to the Newlands Project, which has a number of components. First came the Derby Diversion Dam, which was built in 1905 to divert water from the Truckee River, northwest of Fallon. The water was diverted 32 miles through the Truckee Canal to the Carson River, which rises in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and flows east into Nevada’s Lahontan Valley. The increased water flow in the Carson River was for the benefit of homesteaders in the Lahontan Valley. But the going was tough; stream flows were highly variable, drainage was a problem, and water shortages were such that many would-be settlers avoided the area. To better regulate water available to Lahontan Valley farmlands, the Reclamation Service, in January 1911, began building Lahontan Dam on the Carson River.
Electric power to construct the dam came from the more than 100-foot fall of the Truckee Canal. Electric motors powered the dragline excavator, as well as a conveyor belt to transport gravel and soil, a 1,600-foot cableway to carry concrete and an electric shovel. According to project manager D. W. Cole, the shovel may have been the first electric one ever in use, handling the dam’s 500,000 cubic yards of gravel less expensively than any coal-powered steam shovel could. The electric machinery proved highly effective and Lahontan Dam, a 162-foot-tall earth and gravel fill structure, was completed in June 1915, its massive outlet tower boasting 12 gates at two different elevations. Its powerplant, immediately below the dam, still supplies hydroelectric power through transmission lines to the communities of Fallon, Fernley, Wadsworth, Hazen and Stillwater, as well as Indian reservations and rural areas. (In 1988, a second power house was constructed at Lahontan Dam.)
Today, the Newlands Project irrigates about 73,000 acres, far short of an original estimate that envisioned 200,000 arable acres. In addition to Lahontan Dam and Powerplant, other units of the Newlands Reclamation Project listed on the National Register of Historic Places are: Derby Diversion Dam, Carson River Diversion Dam, Boca Dam, Lake Tahoe Dam and V-Canal Powerplant.
For all the benefits it has wrought, the Newlands Project has faced controversy. Even as its dams and canals helped farmers, they altered the hydrology of a desert landscape so remarkable that it has sustained hundreds of species of migrating birds for thousands of years. As explained by Graham Chisholm and Larry A. Neel in Birds of the Lahontan Valley, western Nevada once was covered by a deep, ancient lake, Lake Lahontan. Ten thousand years ago, the lake began to recede, leaving behind a mosaic of pools and the beginnings of today’s wetlands. The rivers that ran then, as now, into Nevada’s Great Basin have no outlet to the ocean. They end in lakes or what are called sinks, which act like bowls, filling up with water, then evaporating and drying out--all in a region that receives only five inches of annual rainfall. As Chisholm and Neel explain, it’s a boom-and-bust cycle, the basin transforming over the span of one season from fresh, clear lakes to brackish marshes.
Before the Newlands Project, the Carson River rushed down from the Sierra Nevadas in the spring, its uncontrolled runoff flooding the Lahontan Valley wetlands. Today, the Carson River and diverted water from the Truckee flow into Lahontan Reservoir, where water releases are regulated. Ongoing issues over who owns the rights to Truckee and Carson River water continue today as some groups, concerned about the future of the wetlands, have joined in efforts to buy additional rights to divert water there. That has heightened local concerns about the reliability of future water supplies for communities and individual water users.
At the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Fallon National Wildlife Refuge and the Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge at Pyramid Lake, visitors can see hundreds of thousands of shorebirds passing through during migration. Shorebird migration peaks in the third week of April, bringing thousands of American Avocets and Long-bill Dowitchers. In the fall, nearly a quarter million American Coots have been recorded. In the winter, cliff-nesting Prairie Falcons and Golden Eagles move into the valley, while summer fills with the trills and squeals of Marsh Wrens and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
Visit the National Park Service Travel Bureau of Reclamation's Historic Water Projects to learn more about dams and powerplants.
Last updated: January 13, 2017