Born amid an uplift of mountains millions of years ago, the Truckee River still flows 125 miles from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake. It carries life from the Sierra Nevada to the Great Basin Desert, where all the rivers flow inland and never know the sea.
The waterway has nurtured countless generations of indigenous people. The Wa She Shu (the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada) lived on the shores of Lake Tahoe in the warm seasons and moved to villages in what is now Douglas County, Carson City and the Truckee Meadows in advance of winter’s wrath. The homeland of the Numu (Northern Paiutes) stretches across high desert of Northern Nevada, with the Newe (Western Shoshone) as eastern neighbors. The branch of the Numu known as the Cui-ui Tuccutta (cui-ui eaters) prospered at Pyramid Lake.
Caretakers of the water
The native people are, and have always been, stewards of the water of life. They maintained an ecological equilibrium that lasted from the late Ice Age until the late 18th century, when European-American newcomers flooded into their territories. In the 150 years of development that followed, the lives of the original inhabitants — and the health of the watershed – spun out of balance.
It is only in the last several decades that some of that damage has been reversed, but threats to the region’s water system remain. History attests that ignorance, arrogance and greed are the forces that have always worked to destroy the region’s vital watershed.
An ancient lake
During the glacial eras from 75,000 to 10,000 years ago, the Truckee entered the Basin at what is now Lockwood to feed ancient Lake Lahontan. That inland ocean waxed and waned with the rhythm of climate changes over millions of years. At its greatest depth, at what is now Pyramid Lake, Lahontan was 886 feet deep. What is now Fallon was beneath 420 feet of water.
People fished in the great lake, perhaps as early as fifteen millennia ago. The oldest known petroglyphs in North America, carved in calcium carbonate rock on what is now the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, have been dated at between 10,500 and 14,800 years before the present.
The river was a highway
Humans have been crossing the Sierra Nevada for thousands of years. Shells from the Pacific Ocean have been found at archaeological sites far to the east of what is now Reno. In the Truckee Meadows, fishing villages hugged the river. For more than 4,000 years, tribal people returned to a camp on the Truckee at what is now the Vista Boulevard/Interstate-80 interchange in Sparks.
In wet cycles and dry, the site was a base for hunting, food preparation and winter camping. It was most used from A.D. 500 to 1400, according to archaeologists who investigated the site for Nevada’s Department of Transportation.
The Indians ate antelope, mule deer, mountain sheep, cottontails and jackrabbits. Fish were plentiful: cutthroat trout, cui-ui, chub and Tahoe suckers were caught in gill nets. The greatest fishing activity came during the winter spawning runs, when the Truckee thrashed with fish; families ate their fill.
Continuous occupation at Pyramid
At Pyramid Lake, the Numu thrived; the cui-ui and Lahonthan cutthroat trout were staples of their diets. They began their day with a prayer to the Father of All People as they washed their faces in the lake or the river.
“Give me a good day. Take away any sicknesses I may have and drop them on the other side of the mountains.”– Paiute prayer.
Across the desert, the Numu lived in small bands. The family was the main unit of society. They had no word for cousins, who were addressed as brothers and sisters. Food was shared with visitors.
For more than 300 years after 1492, the Great Basin was a blank space on maps of North America. Until the early 19th century, most Great Basin Indians never had seen a European-American. Once they did, changes came swiftly.
The strangers arrive
Fur trappers arrived in the 1820s and 1830s, but did not linger. In January of 1844, explorer John C. Fremont followed a canyon southward to the shores of a bright blue desert lake. “It broke upon our eyes like the ocean,” he wrote. “For a long time we sat enjoying the view.” The lake, “set like a gem in the mountains,” had a singular feature: a triangular rock formation that Fremont fancifully described.
“It rose, according to our estimate, 600 feet above the water; and from the point we viewed it, presented a pretty exact outline of the Great Pyramid of Cheops… I called it Pyramid Lake.”– Capt. John C. Fremont, 1844.
Fremont dubbed the waterway that fed the lake the “Salmon-Trout River.” Nine months later, the leaders of a wagon train bound for California called the same river the Truckee, in honor of the friendly Paiute who directed them to what would become a new emigrant route across the Sierra at Donner Pass.
Fremont’s name for the river appeared on early maps, but pioneer journals show that calling the waterway the Truckee River caught on as early as 1845. By the 1850s, the moniker was well established.
“We beheld the green banks and crystal clear waters of the Truckee River by the morning sun. It was to us, the river of life.”— Elisha Brooks, journal, 1852.
In 1859, the Rush to Washoe brought tens of thousands of miners to Western Nevada. Chinese laborers carved a railroad line across the Sierra and through the Truckee Meadows after the Civil War. Reno was founded in 1868. Ditches and canals soon sliced up the landscape.
Beginning in the 1870s, the Truckee River through Reno became an open sewer. In summer, human waste festered in ditches along the parched river banks. In spring, rushing waters washed away the sewage, which ended up downstream at Pyramid Lake. Tanneries, butcher shops, hotels, eateries and all manner of other businesses used the ditches and the river for waste disposal.
“There has been a great deal of talk lately both in print and personally about the fearful stenches that greet the uncultured nose at almost every point in Reno”— Nevada State Journal, Aug. 12, 1882.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s more dams, ditches and industry made matters worse. Laws were passed and then diluted. Powerful interests teamed up to squeeze every penny of profit from an already overexploited river.
In February 1879, the Reno Evening Gazette reported the Truckee was the color of melted butter because of oil dumped in the water. The newspaper reported the river “is a tumbling mass of sawdust…A poor lonesome fish would not even know its mother two feet away.” From the 1900 until 1930, sawdust from the Floriston Pulp and Paper Company operations upstream in California clogged the waterway, mixing with human and animal waste generated by Reno residents and businesses. Residents referred to the water as noxious “Reno chowder.”
Dams and dead fish
The industrial boom of the late 19th century swept up the river in its wake and left pollution behind. Few voices came to its defense. By the end of the 1800s, the Truckee River was on its way to becoming the most dammed stream in the West. At the same time, the Sierra was being stripped of its trees to prop up the mines of the Silver State.
Less than three decades after the first settler’s cabins were built in the Truckee Meadows, the fish in the river were severely depleted. Between overfishing and dozens of dams blocking the spawning runs, the Truckee River fishery was doomed. On Sept. 6, 1898, the Tuscarora Times-Review reported: “The Truckee River, once the grandest trout stream on the coast, is now declared to be depopulated of all but catfish.”
The passage of the Newlands Act in 1902 paved the way for the diversion of Truckee River water into the Carson River system at Derby Dam. The federal project to “make the desert bloom” came at the expense of the fish and the people at Pyramid Lake. The Pyramid Lake species of Lahontan cutthroat trout could no longer navigate the river to spawn; they became extinct. The cutthroats in the lake today, a species designated as “threatened,” are relatives of the original species.
Flood control projects
By 1903, the Reno Evening Gazette reported that the river flowing through downtown was “a blend between black and brown with soapy bubbles covering its surface.” Reno’s water supply — already filthy and crawling with microbes — became the dirty joke of the West. A 1915 newspaper editorial complained that “even cows won’t drink from the Truckee.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began major flood control projects that removed some of the river’s natural features and turned its banks into a shallow canyon in downtown Reno. Dams and reservoirs were built upstream at Prosser and Stampede.
The cui-ui fish, a staple of Paiute life for thousands of years, seemed destined to vanish by 1967. That year, Pyramid Lake reached its lowest level in recent history: 3,783.9 feet above mean sea level. That measurement was 86.1 feet lower than in July 1911, shortly after the Derby Dam began diverting water to the Newlands Project in Churchill County. The Pyramid Lake cui-ui no longer could swim to the river from the lake during the annual spawning season. Because of water diversions, the lake was slowly drying up.
A turning point
In the 1970s, federal environmental laws – including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act — were passed. Those measures had a positive effect on the Truckee River and the lakes at its beginning and its terminus. In the 1970s and 1980s environmental groups and the Pyramid Lake tribe filed lawsuits to protect the water. Indian voices, ignored for so many years, were finally heard in courtrooms from Nevada to Washington, D.C.
In 1988, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid kicked off negotiations aimed at resolving a century of conflicts over the Truckee River.
The late Norman Harry, who served several terms as chairman and vice-chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, along with his team, eventually completed a multi-party negotiation of the Truckee River Operating Agreement. That compact settled decades of litigation over water rights in Northern Nevada. The settlements returned water rights to the tribe.
“What’s good for the fish is good for the people”– Norman Oliver Harry, water protector, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.
A trend toward balance
In the last 150 years on the Truckee River, nothing has changed and everything has changed.
Truckee River water is no longer “Reno chowder,” but challenges remain. In the 160 years since wagon trains trundled across the meadows, error has ruled the river and in time some of those mistakes have been corrected.
Community groups stepped up to defend the resource. The indigenous people of Northern Nevada, stewards of the water since prehistoric times, have a long-awaited seat at some of the tables of power. Advances have been made.
No time for complacency
Yet, the clear, rushing water beneath the Virginia Street Bridge in Reno doesn’t tell the whole story. Increased development upstream sends more and more pollution downstream. Fragmented planning and short-sighted avarice still threaten a resource that has existed from the dawn of time and now is essential to the survival of half a million people.
The river does not heal itself. History teaches us what the original inhabitants of the Great Basin always knew: we are all guardians of the water – or will be counted among its destroyers.