Going back through time, through the 1950's and 1960's, the health of the river ecosystem was not understood, and was not considered a priority in management practices. Relatively modern science has shown that old practices were very damaging to the ecosystem.
Historically, the major concern surrounding our local streams and river water was flooding. Because all of our outdoor water (rain, snowmelt, and over-watering runoff) runs down into the creeks and river, the common belief among engineers was that we needed to get it out of our community as quickly as possible. Water was seen as a liability. It could flood homes and cause damage to streets and other infrastructure, the community feared. As a result, the Truckee River was historically straightened and channelized. The curves were taken out of it, and it was put into a straight line to move water through before flooding occurred.
How Rivers Run... and how the Truckee was affected?
Agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as local and state agencies, now understand that the river is a dynamic system. This dynamism means that the river behaves like a river: it flows, meanders, jumps over the banks, forms gravel islands, and floods. Plants growing along the river not only look pretty and provide habitat for fish, bugs, birds, and mammals, but they help hold the banks together in large flows, and take up nutrients (like those in fertilizers) from the water, providing some cleansing to our river.
When the river was straightened, the dynamic water still wanted to take its twisty, torturous route. As a result, the water carved out the new banks and caused erosion. When the upstream cities developed, they sent more runoff water downstream immediately after storms. The river began to receive large pulses of high-energy water. This water carves out the bottom of the river, or "incises" it, causing more erosion to happen.
With all of the erosion that has happened in our river, the water levels dropped too low, and plants growing on the banks could no longer keep their roots in the water in the lower reaches. Much of the riverside (or riparian) vegetation died and the riparian forest went away. Downstream, the river's end, Pyramid Lake, receives our river water and all of our runoff and sediment from erosion also. This is of concern to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and others interested in protecting threatened and endangered fish and other species which rely upon clean river water and spawning gravels.
What are we doing to restore the river?
Simple, yet large-scale projects can help us to restore the river's benefits. The City of Reno, City of Sparks, The Nature Conservancy, and other partners embarked upon a long-term restoration project for the Lower Truckee River. With help from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Cities obtained a large grant ($9 million, from the Desert Terminus Lakes fund) and is working with other agencies to restore the lower river in a series of projects. The Nature Conservancy has been instrumental in designing and managing construction of restoration projects along with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, providing construction management and guiding the projects.
This is the list of projects included on the BOR grant, with McCarran Ranch being the first completed and monitored for effectiveness. The first five projects of the eleven named are: McCarran Ranch, 201 Ranch, Lockwood, Mustang Ranch and Below Derby Dam.
As you will find on the links above, these projects include reconnecting plants with the river, slowing the water down to allow for the riverine forest to regrow, providing bank stabilization and nutrient uptake, and recreating a balanced habitat for sensitive species on our lower river.