Nature’s Benefits in Action 

Healthy Floodplains Calm High Water, Create Wildlife Habitat

Major flooding kicked off the new year in northwestern Nevada.  But our years-long work to heal the Truckee and Carson rivers worked just as planned during the emergency. 

You can help us protect Nevada’s rivers and the many benefits they provide for people and nature.  

Sierra Nevada snow. © The Nature Conservancy (Simon Williams)

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Simon Williams)

It all happened over a couple of January days. First the snow fell—lots of it—and accumulated in forests across the Sierra Nevada. This is a great thing, especially during drought years. Healthy forests capture and hold snow, providing much-needed water for wildlife and people during warmer months.

But this snowfall was different. Temperatures rose after the storm, heavy rains arrived, and the melting began. Potentially damaging flood waters soon followed—the highest since 2005—and rushed through the valleys of Reno, Sparks and other communities across northwestern Nevada. Hundreds of families were evacuated from their homes.

Truckee River in Reno © Nick Ares/FlickrCC

Photo © Nick Ares/FlickrCC

The Truckee River is the lifeblood of northwestern Nevada. It provides drinking water, industry support, wildlife habitat and recreation—right in the heart of Reno. This is what the river usually looks like these days. It’s a rare sight for the rocks to be completely covered by water.

GIF © The Nature Conservancy (Simon Williams)

Here’s the river during January’s peak flows. It nearly went over its banks in several places while crashing through downtown.

GIF © The Nature Conservancy (Simon Williams)

But look at this: Just minutes downstream, the river looked and acted very differently. Why? Because The Nature Conservancy and partners have been restoring 10 miles of the Truckee River and its floodplain for 14+ years—and it’s working.


Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Simon Williams) 

Once a thriving, wild river teeming with hundreds of bird species and 40-pound Lahontan cutthroat trout, the Truckee was highly degraded by various human uses over the course of a century. Among the results? Ninety-percent fewer trees, 70% decrease in bird population, and disappearance of nearly all native fish.

That’s why the Conservancy took on the task of healing the river.


Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Simon Williams)

Investing more than $25 million into the economy over the years via local contracts and equipment, our collaborative restoration strategies have included: reshaping the river to reconnect to the floodplain; creating in-stream riffles that provide habitat for native fish like trout; excavating banks to craft habitat for birds, frogs and other wildlife; and replacing invasive weeds with native plants.


Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Simon Williams) 

The hard work is clearly paying off. As January’s flood rolled through the Conservancy’s projects—McCarran Ranch Preserve, Lockwood, 102 Ranch, Mustang Ranch and the Tracy Reach—water significantly slowed down while thinly flowing across the restored floodplain. Erosion, a historic problem, was also not an issue.


Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Nathan Lovas) 

There’s good news for wildlife, too. As high water recedes, cottonwoods and other native vegetation will provide habitat that’s much healthier than it was before. And the high water should also help The Nature of Art living sculptures at McCarran Ranch Preserve continue to grow into the surrounding environment and thrive.


Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Simon Williams)

The 350-foot-long sculpture at River Fork Ranch and the wildlife supported there are benefiting from January’s floods, too. The Carson River left its banks at our preserve near Genoa—just like we’d hoped and planned.

Conservancy staff have spent 10 years reconnecting the river and floodplain here. By making it easier for the preserve’s 805 acres to flood, the ranch can recharge the aquifer via runoff and temporarily hold flood waters that could otherwise threaten people and property downstream—all while revitalizing streamside and wetland habitats along the river.


Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Simon Williams)

The recent floods were a perfect test of our efforts. The preserve is protected by a conservation easement that requires the area remain undeveloped and functioning as a floodplain. 

Conservancy staff spent several days preparing before high water reached the preserve, moving supplies and equipment necessary for restoration. Bags of costly native seed that will be planted this spring to improve wildlife habitat for monarch butterflies, willow flycatcher and more were high priorities.

River Fork Ranch.=

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Duane Petite)

At its highest point, water was up to two feet deep at River Fork Ranch—and we couldn’t be more excited. “We are coming out of a five-year drought and it’s been hard on wildlife,” says Duane Petite, Carson River project director. “This spring will be amazing for Nevada’s wildlife.”

You can get more details about the floods at River Fork Ranch Preserve from The Record Courier.


Photo © Justin Bailie for The Nature Conservancy 

We invite you to see the positive, post-flood changes over the coming seasons for yourself by visiting McCarran Ranch Preserve and River Fork Ranch Preserve. Both sites will be greener than they’ve been in years. We hope to see you there!

We also hope you will “Like” us on Facebook. We’ll be sharing regular updates about these projects and how you can get involved there. 

Your help is needed to continue restoring Nevada’s rivers and streams—today and for future generations>> 

Explore Other Projects in Nevada>>


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