After a long, agonizing period, paralysis has come to one of the West’s most highly regarded trout streams, the East Walker River in the Mono County community of Bridgeport. Conservation experts predict an eventual recovery, but that promises to be a slow process.
Because of the lingering drought, the Walker River Irrigation District has been rapidly depleting the Bridgeport Reservoir of its water for agricultural use in Nevada, and Thursday it drained the last of it. The fast-flowing water tore up the stream bed and carried silt from the bottom of the reservoir into the river, leaving the shores of the lake and the East Walker River littered with dead fish.
Trophy-sized brown trout, their gills choked by silt, are either dead or struggling to survive.
And those that manage to survive in the silted water that remains face almost certain death unless there is lots of rain before Nov. 1, when the refilling of the reservoir is scheduled to begin.
According to biologist Darrell Wong of the Department of Fish and Game, the stream will get lower and slower when the irrigation district limits the flow to the river long enough for the refill operation to be completed.
“If they had their way, they’d slam the doors shut and not let any water into the river,” he said. “Assuming we don’t get a complete kill, protecting the fish from a low flow is going to be a problem.”
Wong cites heating of the water by the sun as the immediate problem, and freezing during the winter months if there is not significant precipitation by then.
The East Walker River has been known as a reliable trout stream for decades, and since it was awarded wild-trout-stream status in 1975, it has been regarded by fly fishermen as one of the Western United States’ premier trout waters, where 5- to 10-pound brown trout were not uncommon.
Because of its wild-trout-stream status, it is a priority of the DFG to maintain a self-sustaining trout population. In this case, however, the DFG’s hands are tied.
“In the early part of the century, the government decreed the water rights and gave (Nevada) ownership of the the water behind the dam,” Phil Pister, a DFG biologist based in Bishop, said. “That takes the law out of our hands.”
According to John Snyder, technical assistant at the reservoir, the dam was built specifically so that water would be available for agricultural purposes in Nevada.
As part of a federal decree issued by the courts in 1919, the irrigation district was granted the right to divert water, and because of drought conditions during the last two years, the district says it has been overcome with requests by farmers for water.
“The farmers own the water, and when they request it, all I can do is let them have it,” Jim Weisshaupt, manager of the irrigation district, said.
The river begins at the outlet pipe of the reservoir and meanders 8 miles to the Nevada border, then flows 60 miles to Nevada’s Walker Lake. It has long figured in the economy of Bridgeport.
“The sporting goods stores sell lots of flies and equipment, the people use the restaurants, stay in motels. . . . There’s no question it is important to (Bridgeport’s) economy,” said John Deinstadt, a DFG wild-trout specialist familiar with the area.
For about a year, though, the irrigation district has been taking out more water than was flowing into the reservoir, making life harder on the fish population below the dam.
Until it was drained, the water in the reservoir was more easily heated by the sun--and the river has grown siltier as deposits on the lake bottom have been stirred and sent downstream.
DFG personnel and about 30 volunteers and detention camp workers last week tried to rescue as many fish as possible, but because the water had become so muddy the operation was largely unsuccessful.
The group did rescue 208 trout, which Pister said represented “far less than 10% of the reservoir’s population,” and trucked them to Bridgeport’s Twin Lakes.
The rest were not so lucky.
“It’s disgusting,” Dick Dahlgren, an area manager for California Trout, said after returning from the drained reservoir. “There are literally thousands of dead fish all over the place. You can see fish gulping air. . . . People are out there shooting them with bows and arrows.”
Said Rick Rockel, owner of a sporting goods store in Bridgeport and a member of CalTrout: “It’s a total disaster in the upper 4 miles of the East Walker River. Even the perch and carp are dead.”
Wong, who visited the river Thursday to monitor water conditions, said the water was so thick with silt that he couldn’t get any accurate readings.
He did say that the temperature of the water in the river ranged from the low 60s to 73 degrees, far too warm to sustain trout life.
Should there be a complete kill, as there was when the reservoir was drained in 1977, Pister said it will take four or five years for the eight-mile stretch to the Nevada state line to regain its blue-ribbon status.
The irrigation district historically has allowed an adequate flow to maintain a healthy fishery, but drought conditions upset that arrangement. The 1977 draining was also caused by drought.
This time, however, the DFG has documented the process and its ramifications on the fish populations and is planning to submit its findings to the courts in hopes of preventing a similar disaster in the future.
“Fish and Game Code 5650, which deals with pollution, says that it’s a violation to deposit anything that is (detrimental) to the fish life,” DFG Patrol Lt. Mike Wolter, said. “We’ll compile our information and submit it to the district attorney’s office, and take it from there.”