Monday, February 6th, 2023
Monday, February 6th, 2023

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Fleeing Walker Lake: Where have all the loons gone

Reno, Nev. (AP) – On the wind-swept desert of northern Nevada,
spring in one tiny town has been welcomed for years with a festival
to a celebrated group of visitors – migrating loons. Perilously
clumsy on land but graceful and sleek in water, the large birds
with a haunting call used to descend on Walker Lake by the hundreds
to gorge on a fishy feast of small tui chub before continuing their
journey to who knows where.

Not this year, and the reason is Walker Lake itself. Its water
quality and levels have declined and along with them the rich
bounty of small fish that attracted the loons.

The result: Hawthorne’s Loon Festival, held each year in late
April, was canceled, replaced by a day to bring awareness to Walker
Lake’s teetering ecosystem and ongoing, multimillion dollar and
multifaceted efforts to save it from a salty demise.

Walker Lake was once considered one of the largest migratory
stopovers for loons west of the Mississippi.

“We don’t have enough loons to invite people to come and see
them,” said Lou Thompson of Hawthorne, an organizer for the Walker
Lake Working Group, an organization that has been championing the
lake’s predicament for years.

The festival used to draw 300-400 people to the small community
of less than 3,000, a good turnout for a place Thompson describes
as being “in the middle of nowhere” – about 95 miles southeast of
Reno. The highlight was chauffeured boat rides, bringing loon
watchers within marveling distance of the typically shy birds with
velvety black heads.

Last year, the first boat out spotted a few. The others saw none
at all.

“Now we have a difficult time even launching boats,” Thompson

Walker Lake, a remnant of ancient Lake Lahonton, is fed
exclusively by the Walker River and melting snow in California’s
eastern Sierra. It is one of three terminus lakes in North America
with fresh water fisheries – the others are Pyramid Lake north of
Reno and Summit Lake in extreme northwest Nevada.

Since the early 1880s, Walker Lake’s water level has plunged
about 145 feet, largely because of upstream agricultural use. Each
year water also is lost through evaporation under the scorching
summer sun.

As water levels drop, so does the lake’s life-supporting

Walker Lake reached an all-time documented elevation low of
3,930 feet above sea level last year, said Kim Tisdale, a fisheries
supervisor with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. As a
consequence, impurities, or total dissolved solids, reached an
all-time high, 16,775 milligrams per liter – a lethal level for
young fish.

So far, larger adult fish, including threatened native Lahontan
cutthroat trout raised in hatcheries and acclimated slowly to
Walker Lake’s water conditions, have managed to survive.

Not so for eggs or smaller fish that the loons feed on.

“It’s hard on their kidneys and gill function,” Tisdale

Last year, biologists found no young tui chub. For the loons,
the all-you-can-eat buffet was out of business.

But Walker Lake may not be destined to a briny desert sink.

In 2002, Congress passed a law sponsored by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid
to provide $200 million to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation “to
provide water to at-risk natural desert terminal lakes.”

That launched the Desert Terminal Lakes Program. Another $175
million was appropriated last year.

In 2005, $70 million was designated for the Walker Basin
Project, a comprehensive scientific and economic program to study
the river basin and water use. It also set aside money to buy water
rights from willing sellers to get more water to the lake.

The studies are being coordinated and conducted by the Desert
Research Institute and University of Nevada, Reno.

Scientists have been studying not only how water moves within
the basin, but the viability and economics of planting less
water-gulping upstream crops. The goal is to have a healthy river
and ecosystem, but not at the expense of upstream users and rural

“This is a huge undertaking,” said Daniel Klaich, vice
chancellor at the Nevada System of Higher Education who is
overseeing the program. “If you withdraw water from agriculture,
you want to do it in such a way as you don’t create a dust

Klaich said the program has received about a half-dozen offers
from holders of water rights. But in the arid West, not all water
rights are created equal. Older rights are at the top of the
pecking order when it comes to disbursement. And not all may
benefit Walker Lake.

“I could buy water, and it would never make it to the lake,”
Klaich said, explaining that water rights most desirable would be
those nearer to the lake, as opposed to far upstream.

Researchers plan to release details of their studies in June to
a stakeholders group that includes agricultural users, the Walker
River Paiute Tribe, residents, and various local, state and federal

“This is something that is the lifeblood for the people in this
valley who have been there generations and generations,” Klaich
said. “They have to be involved.”

Thompson, who first came to Hawthorne in the 1940s, fears time
is running out to save the lake’s fishery. Barge tours on the lake
this summer may be replaced by kayaks because of low water levels.
He wonders, after a third year of drought, how much longer the
larger fish will be able to hang on as the water continues to
recede and quality deteriorates.

It makes him sad. But he remains optimistic that all the studies
and pledges of cooperation may finally bring fresh water to a dying
desert lake.

He just hopes it’s not too late.

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