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Walt Higgins: Be Prepared for Changes in Water Supply

Nearly every year, Northern Nevadans are reminded of the importance of water to our livelihoods.

Reno, NV | February 07, 2012

Nearly every year, Northern Nevadans are reminded of the importance of water to our livelihoods.

This year, we are experiencing a drought accompanied by unusual winter fires. Water from the Truckee, Carson and Walker rivers supplies drinking water for residents and businesses, irrigation water for agriculture and, in the case of the Truckee River, the means by which we dispose of treated wastewater. The health of our rivers is critical for fish and wildlife and for tourism, recreation and the quality of our lives.

With all this at stake, it is good news that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced it will study how supply and demand for water could change in the Truckee River basin due to long-term shifts in climate. As there is plenty of uncertainty about the future climate of the eastern Sierra Nevada, it is worth asking some “what-if” questions so we are fully prepared for all possibilities.

One projection is that our region’s average temperatures might increase by several degrees, with perhaps the same or somewhat reduced, levels of precipitation. Warmer temperatures would cause more of our precipitation to fall as rain than as snow compared to past years. Spring would begin earlier, and fall would end later. The longer growing season could be expected to increase irrigation demand.

Our weather might also become more variable, meaning the frequency of floods and droughts would increase, and previously “normal” years would occur less often. The increased frequency of drought and longer growing seasons might also mean more Sierra Nevada wildfires.

Of course, nobody can say with certainty that these events, or any particular climate scenario, will come to pass. But there is enough evidence of changes occurring that it is prudent to ask how we can best adapt if these predictions do come to pass.

We are fortunate, however, that if we take appropriate steps in preparation for these changes, the Truckee, Carson and Walker rivers will likely remain reliable sources of freshwater and will continue to serve the many interests that depend on them.

Let’s hope the Bureau of Reclamation study launches a broad discussion of how our economy, our way of life and fish and wildlife might be affected due to changes in the climate of the Sierra Nevada, and what might be done to address such effects.

The discussion must not be limited to a single agency or study, however. Generating a workable plan demands engagement at all levels of government and input from all stakeholder groups and the people who call this region home. This study is a valuable and necessary start, but the conversation — and focus on solutions — must continue long after the study’s report is issued.

Walt Higgins is board chair for The Nature Conservancy in Nevada and retired chairman and CEO of Sierra Pacific Resources.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at

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