While the drought situation is critical across California and Nevada — categorized as “extreme” and “severe” through large swaths according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report released in August — it isn’t nearly as perilous here in Tahoe/Truckee, at least not this year and at least not for human use. However, the long-range effects for the local land are a different beast with increasing tree die-offs, shrinking snowpack, and ever-graver wildfire threats.
Water for humans
Drought isn’t anything new out West, let alone in the Tahoe region. In the mid-1920s to early 1930s, the Truckee River dried up. In the 1930s, exposed tree stumps in Lake Tahoe on the South Shore revealed that 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, a dry climate dropped water levels to below the natural rim for 1,500 years. Between 1988 and 1992, Lake Tahoe’s water level fell 3 feet below its minimum. But the southwestern United States (including California), said Andrew Schwartz, station manager and lead scientist at the Central Sierra Snow Lab on Donner Summit, is undergoing “the driest 22-year period in 1,200 years. If we look past the most recent droughts, we’re in a very dry period historically.”
Local snow and rainfall numbers for this year aren’t bad, Schwartz said, in fact, they’re close to average despite 2022’s dismal state record. But this extended phase of overall dryness is taking a toll on water districts statewide.
With about 30% of the state’s water supply coming from snowpack run-off (a conservative estimate), Schwartz said, “It’s very problematic that we’re seeing shrinking snowpack and limited periods it’s available because it affects so many people and it’s such a large portion of what we use … If we don’t get a good snow year … [places like Los Angeles are] going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable choices about how to restrict water.”
On March 28, Gov. Newsom asked that local water suppliers across the state enact level 2 criteria of their water shortage contingency plans, meaning conservation actions must be implemented to decrease water consumption by 20%.
“The state let each agency define the steps that they would take to get to that target because we’re all different,” said Steven Poncelet, public information and strategic affairs director for the Truckee Donner Public Utility District, “and how I achieve 20% with my demographics and my water supply might be different than how a Tahoe City or a North Tahoe or an Olympic Valley do it.”
As an urban water supplier (defined as an agency providing water to more than 3,000 customers or more than 3,000 acre-feet annually), the TDPUD was required to implement water reduction measures by June 10. For PUD customers, this means that lawns and gardens can only be irrigated every other day; a prohibition on applying potable water to driveways or sidewalks; no washing vehicles with hoses (unless a shut-off nozzle is attached); and more. Failure to comply means fines or penalties. To date, no fines or penalties have been assessed further than a few one-time complaints through the PUD. Poncelet said the agency has seen a nearly 20% reduction in water use this year compared to last year.
“What we learn today in the behaviors that we adopt and the technologies that we bring in can really help us set up for a future where everyone’s going to need to use less water,” Poncelet said.
Other local California water purveyors in Moonshine Ink’s coverage area mandated to meet level 2 water shortage contingency plans include Tahoe City Public Utility District and North Tahoe Public Utility District. Squaw Valley Mutual Water Company and Olympic Valley Public Service District are not considered urban water suppliers but have voluntarily implemented level 2 measures.
The Donner Summit Public Utility District is also not considered an urban water supplier, and its general manager, Steve Palmer, said the California Division of Drinking Water is now moving forward requiring smaller agencies to create water conservation plans. Donner Summit PUD, which pulls water directly from Lake Angela to service the approximately 355 structures it covers, put out a request for proposals for a district plan.
“We’re going to do analysis of [Lake Angela] and our water supply and evaluate how resilient it is to drought conditions,” Palmer said. “… Because we’re small and control our own destiny, I’m not worried about too much at this point [regarding drought effects]. There’s water up there; there’s no imminent threat, but the state wants to see that we’re planning.” Applications to Donner Summit PUD’s RFP are due Sept. 22.
In Nevada, the Incline Village General Improvement District, which provides water and sewer services, does not have state-required water conservation methods to abide by. Still, IVGID provides information on ways customers can reduce water use, and offers rebates to those who replace their toilets or washing machines with high-efficiency versions.
In his March executive order for California, Newsom included that if the current drought lasts longer than 2022, urban water suppliers “[should] voluntarily activate more stringent local requirements based on a shortage level of up to 30% (level 3).”
Despite the required reduction of water use, Truckee has a comfortable amount of water available, Poncelet said. “We rely on the Martis Valley Groundwater Basin for our water supply,” he said. “We’re a 100% groundwater agency. The Martis Valley aquifer is a large aquifer with ample supply today and into the future. As a large aquifer, it’s been extensively monitored and studied over the decades, is well managed, and current and future demands remain well below established sustainable yield numbers.”
The TDPUD and Northstar Community Service District use the aquifer. Because of the supply levels, Poncelet added that no new water sources are being considered by the TDPUD at this time. If a new well needed to be dug to meet future demand, it’d also come from the Martis Valley aquifer.
While the Truckee PUD is confident the Martis Valley aquifer has an ample supply for the district, some have questioned if groundwater pumping might have a negative impact on surrounding ecosystems.
Per the state of California, the Martis Valley Groundwater Management Plan does not need to address the state of groundwater-dependent ecosystems — whether or not they are impacted by the pulling of water from the aquifer. However, the PUD is working with local stakeholders, including the Truckee River Watershed Council, to assess the adjacent ecosystems and determine any steps needed to be taken to protect them.
Tahoe City Public Utility District and the North Tahoe PUD utilize deep groundwater wells and Lake Tahoe intakes in the Basin to supply water.
“While the district has stage 2 water conservation measures in place and would like all our customers to be water-wise and not waste water, we do not feel that our customers need to worry about their water supply now or into the future,” wrote Justin Broglio, public information officer for the NTPUD, in an email to Moonshine.
The rest of the world
While water for humans might seem all set, the land is taking a hit.
Drought impacts to water supply have an obvious impact to surface water like lakes, rivers, and reservoirs — not only in a dip in levels (Lake Tahoe is expected to drop below its natural rim in late October), but an increase in algal blooms, which can degrade water clarity and, in some cases, pose toxic threat. In its Tahoe State of the Lake Report 2022, UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center shared that floating alga increased in the lake by 300% in a single year.
Because the water is too shallow for boarding boats this year, many requests to dredge marinas around Lake Tahoe and other water bodies are being submitted to the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Andrew Jensen, division manager over compliance and planning.
For most of California, Schwartz said precipitation primarily comes via snowfall, and when there is a drought, that means less snow. Besides disappointing snowhounds, where the major concern lies is in the drought stress on the ecosystem.
“We’re seeing these massive 100-year-old trees dying in rapid succession,” he explained. “This time last year we didn’t have any dead trees up here [at the Donner Summit snow lab], and this year I’ve had eight removed.”
Red firs on Donner Summit are dying due to lack of water and subsequent bark beetle infestation. On July 7, representatives from Placer County, Cal Fire, and Truckee Fire Protection District gathered on the summit to witness the drought stress in person. At that tour was Kerri Timmer, Placer’s regional forest health coordinator.
Timmer attributes the Donner Summit red firs’ drought stressors to a thin soil layer (common for mountain summits, where the distance between the surface and bedrock is minimal, Timmer said), as well as impervious surfaces like roads, driveways, and sidewalks. Water from precipitation moves too quickly away from where it lands, leaving the trees wanting.
“Once a tree has gone red — it starts at the top and comes down the tree — the only solution is removal,” she said. “You can’t bring it back to life. Once it looks like that, it typically means the beetles have left that tree and done their damage, and they’ve now moved on to the next one. That’s part of why we’re seeing it in the Serene Lakes neighborhood: The homes are relatively close together and the people wanted to leave as much of the forest intact as possible, which means that there’s a lot of trees.”
The close proximity of trees yields what many forestry experts call straws in the ground, or too many trees desperately competing for the available water to stay alive. It also means bark beetles can move quickly from one tree to another. “Now you start getting a landscape die-off instead of a single tree here or a single tree there,” Timmer said.
Through an independent analysis by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy using aerial detection survey data, it was determined that since 2015, approximately 139.8 million trees have died in the Sierra Nevada from drought, insects, and disease (not including wildfire deaths). In 2021, 7.1 million trees alone died in the Sierra Nevada, accounting for 75% of the 9.5 million tree deaths recorded that year in California.
“I don’t know that it’s being registered by anybody else officially as round two, so to speak, of mortality crisis,” Timmer said of the latest tree die-off, “but just looking around driving from [Auburn] to Truckee and back or here to the lake and back, you can’t help but see it. It’s everywhere.”
The connection between drought and wildfire is obvious: less moisture leads to water-starved greenery, ripe for fire to catch (which of course leads to power outages for safety’s sake, p. 19). Jensen with the control board pointed out the previous years’ substantial increases in wildfire size.
“The last five years, not so much this year yet — keep our fingers crossed — but certainly last year with the Caldor Fire and the Dixie Fire, which was over a million acres,” he said. “I think a lot of us are asking that exact question, is this even going to be a place that we can have folks living in?”
To address the growing fuel for fire, in March 2016, Placer County created a tree mortality task force and hazardous tree removal program to take out dead and dying trees throughout the region. At the time, Placer was identified as one of the 10 California counties with trees most affected by drought and bark beetle damage, and received state funding to help address the problem. (Of Moonshine’s coverage area, El Dorado County is also on the list.) By April 2021, another 5,200 trees threatening Placer County infrastructure were removed.
Now, the county has initiated a new internal group: the Wildfire and Forest Resiliency Task Force to create a Placer-wide plan around forest health and wildfire risk.
Collaboration is how Jensen sees success in combatting drought’s looming cloud (or lack thereof). Each agency, organization, and even individual, he said, is a piece of the puzzle to addressing the impacts of drought — he mentioned a recent workshop between the Lahontan Regional control board, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, and U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to streamline forest restoration projects and invasive species control.
“I’m encouraged,” he said. “And I think working together, we have a lot of hope to make some big differences across the landscape.”