Drought of Hope : Town’s Plans for Economic Revival Now Threatened by Dying Lake


When this dusty western Nevada town realized that it could no longer depend on a nearby Army ammunition plant and a sagging mining industry to drive its economy, it turned to its one natural attraction--Walker Lake, a few miles north.

For decades the 70-square-mile lake has attracted anglers from throughout Nevada, California and other states to fish for its prized Lahontan strain of cutthroat trout. Leaders of Hawthorne, the Mineral County seat, pinned their economic hopes on luring more tourists to the lodges, restaurants and casinos of this remote, sparsely populated desert area by capitalizing on Walker Lake’s bountiful supply of the unusually large fish, which grow up to 40 pounds in prime conditions.

But those hopes for an economic revival are dimming. Scientists say that Walker Lake is dying. Within two years, the scientists say, all of the Lahontan cutthroats could be dead, and its remaining, non-game fish species would probably vanish shortly afterward.


“We’re coming to the point where this tremendous natural resource that we’ve taken for granted for generations is going to disappear in front of our eyes, and we’re not going to have much of a chance of rescuing it,” said Mike Sevon, fisheries biologist for the Nevada Division of Wildlife.

Upstream diversions of the Walker River that fed the lake are causing its level to drop, steadily increasing the concentration of salinity and alkalinity in the water. The water has been rendered so toxic for trout that their life spans are shortened and they no longer reach the large sizes for which they are famous, Sevon said.

He began warning about the imminent destruction of the lake’s fishery more than a year ago. Stunned Hawthorne residents formed a committee, the Walker Lake Working Group, to try to save it.

With the ammunitions plant downsizing and several mines shutting down, residents worry that Mineral County, already one of the poorest counties in Nevada, might go bankrupt if the lake’s fish die. Pickup trucks sport “Save Walker Lake” bumper stickers, and a poster in a shop window describes how to sew a square for a “Save Our Lake” quilt.

Records show that about 4,200 out-of-town fishers flock to Walker Lake each year. That is more than half the population of Mineral County, which has about 6,600 residents.

“If the fish die,” said Mineral County Commissioner Herman Staat, “that would really hurt because we get quite a few people from other states for fishing. They buy lures, fishing licenses, gas for their boat, fill up the motels, and it all gives a boost to the economy. We would really feel it.”


The Walker River originates with two forks in the Eastern Sierra of California that join near Yerington, Nev., in Lyon County, one of the state’s prime agricultural regions, before winding into Mineral County to the east. Over the years, courts have overallocated Walker River water to farmers and ranchers in California, Nevada and the Paiute Indian reservation just north of Walker Lake.

Even in above-average rainfall years, the river system often does not hold enough water to satisfy all of the legal water rights held by ranchers and farmers. During the last seven years of mostly drought, virtually all the water was diverted, with none reaching the lake except for a small amount last year from the settlement of an unrelated lawsuit.

According to studies cited by Sevon, about 137,000 acre-feet of water per year is the minimum amount needed to keep Walker Lake’s level from dropping lower. That represents more than a third of the average annual flow at the upper end of the river.

Members of the Hawthorne citizens group do not dispute the legal water rights of the upstream farmers and ranchers, but some members accuse them of wasting water or expanding operations at the expense of the lake. They cite a Nevada law under which water rights can be lost if water is not used within a certain period, which they say encourages waste.

“We believe that there are compromises that could be reached where they could divert water in Lyon County and still provide water for the lake,” said Louis Thompson, chairman of the Walker Lake Working Group. “It would be much more desirable to reach a negotiated settlement, but we are prepared to go to court. We are bound and determined to get more water into the lake.”

Some group members complained that all the political and economic clout lies upstream in Lyon County, noting that one of their state representatives is the Nevada Assembly Speaker, Joseph Dini of Yerington, who has opposed efforts to provide more water for the lake. Among those who own ranches or farms along the Walker River are some of Nevada’s wealthy, including hotel executive Barron Hilton and Sparks, Nev., casino owner John Ascuaga.


The Sierra Club has joined the Hawthorne group’s fight to keep the lake from dying. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has also pledged to try to save the lake, the second-largest entirely within the state and a remnant of a vast Pleistocene-era lake.

Some proposed solutions include a water rights buyout, and encouraging farmers to switch to water conserving farming methods. But many of the proposed remedies could take longer to implement than the few years biologists say the trout might have left.

Lyon County farmers denied that they waste water, and said that many of them have switched to water saving irrigation practices. There is not enough water in the Walker River system to save the lake without destroying the economy of their area, they said.

“We’ve just had six or seven dry years, and the whole area is very dry, it’s like a sponge,” said Richard Fulstone, who owns ranching interests in Lyon County and eastern California and is chairman of the U.S. Board of Water Commissioners. “If you tried to take a consistent supply of water out of this area, you would devastate it. You would displace families and everything else.”

Dying Environment

Residents of Hawthorne Nev., have depended on trout from nearby Walker Lake to attract fishermen and drive the local economy. But scientists say the lake’s surface level is dropping and within two years, all of the trout could be dead.