About
Maps
Walker Research Phase I: 2007-2009
Research Phase II: 2010-2012

Research Products

Mike Collopy
University of Nevada, Reno
mcollopy@unr.edu | (775) 784-8262

Jim Thomas
DRI
jthomas@dri.edu | (775) 673-7305

Walker Basin Project

About

The Walker Basin Project is a comprehensive, research-based project designed to sustain the basin’s economy, ecosystem and lake. Authorized and funded by Congress in November 2005 with the intention of delivering more water to the lake, $70 million was awarded to the Nevada System of Higher Education. Of that amount, up to $14 million was allocated for research to be conducted collaboratively by the University of Nevada, Reno and DRI, and $56 million was allocated to acquire water rights from willing sellers.

The Research

Research co-directors, Mike Collopy, director of the Academy for the Environment at the University, and Jim Thomas, research professor and senior director of DRI’s Center for Watersheds and Environmental Sustainability, assembled the necessary environmental, agricultural and economic expertise to meet the challenge of analyzing and describing the physical, ecological and economic environments of the entire basin. The Nevada System of Higher Education provided coordination between the University and DRI.

The Walker Basin provides a rich landscape for farmers and ranchers, Native Americans, fishermen, hunters, recreation enthusiasts such as boaters and hikers, and those seeking a small-town, pastoral way of life. Abundant wildlife inhabit the basin including migratory birds that stop over at Walker Lake, which is home to the native Lahontan cutthroat trout, a federally listed threatened species. However, the lake’s water level has dramatically dropped and the salinity level in the lake has increased, threatening the fishery.

One of three desert terminus lakes with a fresh water fishery

Walker Lake is one of only three desert terminus lakes in North America with a fresh water fishery. A terminus lake is a closed system where water from a river flows into the lake, but none flows out. Since 1882, the water level at Walker Lake has dropped 145 feet causing salinity levels to rise, stressing the
lake’s ecosystem. The health of the Walker River, the lake and the entire basin are interdependent, and the economic health of its communities is closely linked to the overall ecological health of the Walker Basin.

Walker Research Project 2007-2009: FAQ

What is the purpose of the Walker Basin Project?
The purpose is to deliver additional water to Walker Lake in a manner that sustains the economy and the ecosystem of the Walker River basin.

Who are the project partners?
The Walker Basin Project is a collaborative project of the University of Nevada, Reno; Desert Research Institute (DRI); and the Nevada System of Higher Education. DRI and the University bring environmental, agricultural and economic expertise to the project. NSHE coordinates the project through the Office of the Chancellor.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Walker Basin Restoration Program was established in accordance with Public Law 111-85 (October 2009) for the primary purpose of restoring Walker Lake. In January 2010, NFWF assumed leadership in implementing the Walker Basin Restoration Program under an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Read more: www.walkerbasin.org

How was the project funded?
The project is authorized and funded by Congress through Public Law 109-103, Section 208. The project funding of $70 million was awarded to the Nevada System of Higher Education through the Department of Interior, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Up to $14 million will go toward research in the Walker Basin, and this research is being conducted collaboratively by the University and DRI. Up to $56 million has been allocated for acquisitions. All activities within the scope of the project are subject to final approval by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The Walker Basin Restoration Program was established in accordance with Public Law 111-85 in October 2009 for the primary purpose of restoring and maintaining Walker Lake.

In January 2010, NFWF assumed leadership in implementing the Walker Basin Restoration Program under a $113.2 million grant agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The total grant award includes approximately $66 million from Reclamation's Desert Terminal Lakes (DTL) fund allocated to NFWF under P.L. 111-85, and $47 million in DTL funds previously committed to the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) for water acquisition purposes that will be reprogrammed for use by NFWF.

Why is it necessary to save Walker Lake?
Walker Lake is undergoing a great amount of stress due to rapidly declining lake levels (145 feet since 1882) with resulting increased salinity. This impacts the lake’s ecosystem.

Walker Lake is one of only three desert terminal lakes in North America with a fresh water fishery. The lake is a major stopover for migrating birds on the Pacific flyway. The environmental health of the basin, of the river and of the lake is interdependent and linked to the economic health of the basin.

What is the significance of the project?
The role of the two research institutions – as collaborators and project leaders – coupled with the project’s scope and complexity, make this a unique and historic undertaking. The research will have application to other arid and high desert regions. Because of this and because of the project scope, it is anticipated to have local, state, national and international implications.

The project partners recognize there are deeply held and occasionally conflicting views about water issues. This contributes to the project’s significance as well.

Will the project include acquisition of water and/or water rights?
Delivering water to Walker Lake will include acquisition of water and/or water rights from willing sellers at fair market value. All acquisitions are subject to final approval by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The acquisition program will be reviewed in an Environmental Impact analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. The research will allow for a more informed process to guide effective delivery of water to the lake, while maintaining the functionality of the existing distribution system.

In January 2010, NFWF assumed leadership in implementing the Walker Basin Restoration Program under a $113.2 million grant agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The total grant award includes approximately $66 million from Reclamation's Desert Terminal Lakes (DTL) fund allocated to NFWF under P.L. 111-85, and $47 million in DTL funds previously committed to the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) for water acquisition purposes that will be reprogrammed for use by NFWF.

In conjunction with approval of the program grant agreement, NSHE transferred to NFWF all 11 option agreements to purchase water and water rights that had been previously negotiated with willing sellers. NFWF now has the lead responsibility in negotiating purchase and sale agreements with each willing seller for and all options exercised, and for entering into any new agreements with willing sellers going forward.
Water Rights Acquisition Program

The first water acquisition closed on May 13, 2010. The sale included 7.745 cubic feet per second (cfs) of natural flow decree water, 403 acre-feet of storage water and 2,585 acre-feet of supplemental ground water rights. The first water acquisition is a significant step forward for the program. The next step is to file applications with the Nevada State Engineer and other approval authorities to change the point of diversion and the manner, place, and purpose of use of the acquired water rights.

NFWF is currently evaluating the remaining option agreements assigned by NSHE, and is developing a strategy to inform appropriate next steps for each agreement.

NFWF is continuing to develop criteria to use as guidance on decision-making for future agreements with other willing sellers, and to help ensure the most appropriate water purchases based on factors including price, location, transferability, expected environmental benefit, and available funding.

What is the role of research?
The research is exploring the best means by which to get water to Walker Lake while maintaining a strong economy and improving the ecosystem of the Walker Lake watershed. These efforts involve developing a watershed and decision support model and evaluating economic impacts of water purchases, low-water use drought-resistant crops, water conservation, in-stream health of the Walker River, and sediment and salt delivery to the Lake. This research will have application to other arid and high desert regions.

How can the process of entering into options for water rights begin before the research is concluded?
These two project elements — entering into options for water rights and conducting research — are happening simultaneously, on parallel tracks. There has been a mistaken perception that the research objective is to determine if additional water should be delivered to the lake. However, prior research has already shown that declining water levels have resulted in worsening water quality and corresponding environmental impacts.  In keeping with the Congressional authorization, the research objective is to determine how best to deliver water to the lake while sustaining the basin’s economy and ecosystem.

Is the project related to any other water importation projects, including projects related to Clark, Washoe or White Pine Counties?
No. Through the Walker Basin Project, water rights purchased within the Walker Basin will remain in the Basin and support increased delivery of water to Walker Lake.

Project Partners

NSHE Logo
University of Nevada, Reno
DRI: Desert Research Institute

Nevada System of
Higher Education

DRI

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
National Fish and
Wildlife Foundation

Walker Basin Resoration Project
U.S. Department of the Interior
Bureau of Reclamation
The Desert Terminus Lakes Project