RENO, Nev. (AP) — Sixth-generation rancher Devere Dressler remembers seeing the Carson River teeming with fish as it flowed out of the eastern Sierra Nevada range, where the peaks were always capped with snow.
Now, as the impacts of severe drought are felt across the West, Dressler sees a river running low, with far fewer fish, and bare mountain tops.
Dressler, who has lived and worked in the northern Nevada Carson River Basin for 71 years, called it “disturbing” to no longer see suckerfish or minnows in the river and only an occasional trout. He remembers always seeing snow in the Sierra into July and August, but in 2021, the snow was gone in June.
“This is the worst I’ve seen. I’ve never seen snow go away,” he said.
As the Carson River runs low and the land dries up, ranchers like Dressler are feeling the impacts on their lives and livelihoods.
Dressler, who operates a ranch southwest of Gardnerville with his wife, has cut down the size of his herd of cattle by a third. He's allowed some of the 1,200 acres (4.86 square kilometers) that the cattle roam on go dry, opting to use less water from the river on the land.
“I don’t want to take too much water out of the river. I leave it in for the other users, and my biggest concern is the wildlife,” he said. “Next year, if we have a repeat dry year, we may have to reduce our numbers more. Time will tell.”
The rights to use the water are based on seniority and availability. With the river running low, some agricultural producers haven't received any water allocations since June.
Water rights on the river date back to 1849, leaving those with water rights dated in 1910 to still be considered “junior" water rights. This year, only those with the oldest rights, considered “senior” water rights, are getting water allocations.
“Seniors get the water and juniors don’t get anything, unless they are next to a senior water user (and get some runoff),” Dressler told the Reno Gazette Journal. “And if you’re a good irrigator, you’re not going to let much get by. A junior water irrigator is out of luck.”
The Carson River has almost no water kept in upstream reservoirs for year-round water storage, unlike the Truckee River, and this year the river’s flow is levels set in 1977 and 2015, the driest on record, according to Carson Water Subconservancy District General Manager Ed James.
Chris Moreno, a Nevada Department of Agriculture environmental scientist, said the drought and low water levels have left such poor conditions on the pastures that some ranchers have stopped using federal grazing areas and instead have put their livestock back on ranches. Those ranchers need feed, but the high price of hay at $300 a ton has squeezed the industry further.
“Folks are just selling off whatever (livestock) they can because they can’t afford feed,” Moreno said.
The Carson River flows into Lake Lahontan, which now looks like a bed of dry, cracked mud and sand with a dry boat launch and pier. It's usually 60 feet (18 meters) deep but is now a small pool of water.
The reservoir, which also takes in water from the Truckee River, is the largest storage area on the Carson River. These days, there is no water anywhere close to the dam.
“If we have another dry year next year,” James said, "it’s going to be really ugly.”