Water in the Tahoe Basin

First Tahoe Dam

First Tahoe Dam

As Nevada and California face a dwindling snow pack and prepare for drought, we are reminded how crucial moisture is to the arid west. Access to water was fundamental to the settlement and development of the region, and Lake Tahoe’s abundance caught the eyes of the earliest Anglo settlers in the area, giving rise to multiple schemes and dreams for exploiting the bounty of the Tahoe Basin.

Alexis Von Schmidt was one of the earliest people to try to get rich from this natural resource. In 1864, he formed the Lake Bigler Canal Company. He intended to build a pipeline to transport  water from the lake to Placer County, California, where mining and ranching activities created a huge demand for water.  When this scheme didn’t pan out, he formed the Lake Tahoe and Nevada Water Works Company to supply the Comstock with water from Tahoe by means of a pipeline which would use steam pumps to move the water from the lake through Carson City and up to Mt. Davidson. However, Virginia City was not interested in the proposed franchise, which would have created a private monopoly in control of the water.

Tahoe Dam and Truckee River

Tahoe Dam and Truckee River

Undeterred by this, Von Schmidt went on to found the Lake Tahoe Water Works Company in 1865, planning to sell Lake Tahoe water to San Francisco. Nevadans erupted in anger, protesting that the flow of water in the Truckee River was crucial to power the many lumber mills that dotted the Truckee River and supplied much needed timber to the Comstock. Ranchers in the Truckee Meadows also protested, claiming their common law water rights had precedence over any later claims. While von Schmidt’s ballot measure to get funding for his project passed, San Francisco, like Virginia City, decided that allowing a private company to control their public water supply was not desirable, and the project was ultimately vetoed.

Construction of the new Tahoe Dam

Construction of the new Tahoe Dam

Again undaunted, Von Schmidt and his company constructed the original dam at the outlet of the Truckee River in 1870.  Made of stone and timber, he had to post an armed guard at the site to protect it from the angry lumbermen downstream. In 1902, Senator Francis Newlands of Nevada wrote the Newlands Reclamation Act, forming the Bureau of Reclamation. The passage of this act created the Truckee–Carson Irrigation District and placed it in control of the run off from Lake Tahoe. The dam was replaced in 1909, raising the water level by ten feet. The Bureau of Reclamation took over management in 1915, and the dam was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. Today, the dam remains a popular sightseeing destination.

Disputes over Lake Tahoe water appropriations continue to the present day. Further downstream, Tahoe’s water is diverted through Derby Dam into the agricultural fields around Fallon, resulting in falling water levels and problems for its natural outlet, Pyramid Lake. Fish populations have suffered, resulting in massive efforts to restore the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout and the cui-ui, both species endemic to Pyramid Lake.

Tahoe Dam. Courtesy of http://www.usbr.gov/mp/lbao/images/lake_tahoe_dam.jpg

Tahoe Dam. Courtesy of http://www.usbr.gov/mp/lbao/images/lake_tahoe_dam.jpg

Balancing the needs of a growing population with a healthy ecosystem is difficult during times of drought. Therefore, not only ski bums should be hoping for some heavy snows. Bring on the storms!

For more information:

Gatekeeper’s Museum
130 West Lake Boulevard
Tahoe City, California

The Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex: http://www.fws.gov/lahontannfhc/

National Register of Historic Places: http://www.nps.gov/nr/

Pisani, Donald J. “Why Shouldn’t California Have the Grandest Aqueduct in the World?”: Alexis Von Schmidt’s Lake Tahoe Scheme; California Historical Quarterly , Vol. 53, No. 4 (Winter, 1974) , pp. 347-360.

Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25157527

Rowley, William D. Reclaiming the Arid West: the Career of Francis G. Newlands. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Strong, Douglas Hillman. Tahoe, an Environmental History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

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