Independence Lake: Protecting an Alpine Treasure

“We must focus on conservation opportunities like preserving Independence Lake that have impacts beyond the acres protected.”

Mike Sweeney, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in California

On May 11, 2010, The Nature Conservancy announced that Independence Lake, one of the most pristine alpine lakes west of the Rockies, and the majestic wilderness that surrounds it will remain protected from development following the sale of the land to The Nature Conservancy by longtime owner NV Energy.

Nestled in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains just north of Lake Tahoe, Independence Lake provides a critical source of fresh water for Nevada’s second largest metropolitan area.

The 2.4-mile lake also harbors one of the world’s last two wild lake populations of the Lahontan cutthroat trout.

Independence Lake is an outstanding outlet for nature enthusiasts, hikers and sportsmen alike. Protecting the lake and 2,325 acres of surrounding forestlands will also contribute greatly to the tourism industry, the mainstay economy of the Sierra Nevada.

The protection of Independence Lake is the latest important step for safeguarding the water supply of northern Nevada,” said U.S. Senator Harry Reid. “The fact that it also provides outstanding recreation opportunities and helps protect native fish makes the purchase all the more significant.”

Heart of the Watershed: Water at the Tap

Protecting the lake safeguards an important source of drinking water for western Nevada and a critical watershed for California’s water supply.

  • 65 percent of Californians drink water that comes from the Sierra Nevada.
  • The lake feeds two reservoirs and the Truckee River watershed.
  • Because of the lake’s 7,000-foot elevation, very little water evaporates, making it an efficient place to store drinking water.
  • The forest floor surrounding the lake is a natural filter, further protecting the water supply.

“Faced with a changing climate, depleted drinking-water supplies and a tough economy, we must focus on conservation opportunities like preserving Independence Lake that have impacts beyond the acres protected,” said Mike Sweeney, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in California.

Partnership Wins the Day

Because the lake is so widely acknowledged as a vital natural resource, this conservation project has an unusually vast and diverse list of partners, including U.S. Senator Harry Reid, who championed the project and allocated a significant portion of the funding, the states of California and Nevada, energy and water utilities, the business community, environmentalists, biologists and the recreation community.

The Independence Lake acquisition caps Governor Schwarzenegger’s legacy in the Sierras—from creating the Sierra Nevada Conservancy after less than a year in office, to having multiple state agencies participating in such a milestone acquisition,” said Lester Snow, California Secretary for Natural Resources.

The funding for this $15 million–dollar purchase comes from a variety of federal funds, secured by Nevada’s Senator Harry Reid; three California agencies, Wildlife Conservation Board, the Resources Agency and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy; and private funders such as The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Northern Sierra Partnership.

NV Energy, the former owner who has stewarded the lake for nearly 75 years, will provide more than $1.3 million to help support ongoing management.

“In the west, we borrow a saying from Mark Twain that ‘whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting,’ but the success of Independence Lake serves as a model for how stakeholders with sometimes very different perspectives can work together to achieve the best possible outcome for the health of our communities and our economy,” said Chris Fichtel, conservation lead for the Independence Lake project with The Nature Conservancy in Nevada.

A Win for Nature, Fish and Fire

The lake and surrounding forests offer exceptional habitat for wildlife. Not only does the area support one of the last runs of the native Lahontan cutthroat trout, but black bears roam the shores and pine trees provide perches for bald eagles and osprey, which can also be seen from the shorelines hunting fish.

The Nature Conservancy will continue to manage Independence Lake with the help of partners like the Truckee Donner Land Trust, who will jointly provide for public access and recreation at Independence Lake. The lake and forests will be managed to sustain fish and wildlife and to provide a continuing supply of clean water to communities downstream.

Additionally, the forests will be managed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the region—a threat to neighboring communities and the water supply—and will continue to serve as a key wildlife corridor, two issues vital for adapting to our changing climate.

Independence Lake at a Glance
  • 7,000’ elevation: leads to little evaporation and makes the lake an ideal reservoir for drinking water
  • 20 minutes: time it would take for a world-class marathon kayaker to paddle the length of the lake
  • 82/14: the summer high/winter low temperatures (F) in the area
  • 207”: average snowfall each year
A Colorful History of Fun Facts
  • The lake was named on Independence Day in 1853.
  • It was named by Lola Montez, mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria.
  • The lake's fairy-tale alpine setting has attracted luxury resort developers over the years.
  • Today the Sierras attract more than 50 million visitors each year.
Funders and Partners
  • U.S. Senator Reid
  • U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
  • CA Wildlife Conservation Board
  • CA Natural Resources Agency
  • CA Sierra Nevada Conservancy
  • CA Department of Fish and Game
  • The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
  • Northern Sierra Partnership
  • Morgan Family Foundation
  • NV Energy
  • Truckee Donner Land Trust
  • Bella Vista Foundation
  • Truckee Meadows Water Authority
  • Truckee River Fund
  • Truckee River Watershed Council
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • U.S. Geological Survey 



x animal

Sign up for Nature eNews!

Sign Up for Nature e-News

Learn about the places you love. Find out
how you can help.

Thank you for joining our online community!

We’ll be in touch soon with more Nature Conservancy news, updates and exciting stories.

Please leave this field empty

I'm already on the list!

Read our privacy policy.