By BEAU KISSLER  |  Moonshine Ink

The historical concrete structure that changed the course of water flow and history in the Lahontan Valley near Reno is the Derby Diversion Dam. Standing 31 feet tall on the Truckee River, the Derby Dam was the first project constructed under the newly formed Reclamation Act of 1902. After roughly a year and a half of construction, the dam was finished in 1905 to provide water to the arid Lahontan Valley outside of Fallon, Nev.

While the project significantly impacted the history of Nevada and its agriculture, it is not without complications. Shortly after completion, the dam showed signs of poor drainage, leaving many farmers with insufficient water for their crops. Additionally, the dam diverts significant amounts of water from Pyramid Lake, the terminal for the Truckee River. Before new regulations were instituted in 1967, “the dam used to take pretty much all of the water,” according to Dave Wathen, deputy federal watermaster in Reno. “It took everything from the river it could up to capacity.”


This had a direct impact on Pyramid Lake, whose waters declined 80 feet due to the unlimited diversions. The dam also contributed to a reduction in the number of native Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroat trout and cui-ui fish (or as the natives call it, kooyooe), a staple food of the Paiute Tribe, only found in Pyramid Lake. The trout were known to travel far upstream, some even up to the Sierra mountains in the spring and back.

Despite efforts to assist the fish, the Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroat trout went extinct in 1940. However, the species was given an unlikely second shot at existence in the lake. According to the National Park Service, in the 1970s a new population of genetically identical Lahontan cutthroat trout was found and delivered from a small stream in Pilot Peak, Utah.

Currently, the trout and cui-ui populations are closely monitored, stocked, and protected by the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery and the Marble Bluff Fish Passage Facility. The cui-ui is still listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Lahontan cutthroat trout is listed as threatened.

The Derby Dam is just one of the dams on the Truckee River and its tributaries, all of which are being impacted by the current three-year drought. Read about how the Truckee River is faring in these low water years in the story, When the River Stops Flowing, here.


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