For­merly bar­ren stretch along Truc­kee thrives

Floods helped planted seeds bloom in spring

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - NEVADA & THE WEST - By Ben­jamin Spillman

RENO — In De­cem­ber, Lori Leonard put fin­ish­ing touches on a na­tive veg­e­ta­tion pro­ject she hoped would re­pop­u­late a bar­ren stretch of the Truc­kee River.

Then she spent the rest of the win­ter won­der­ing if her work would sur­vive through spring.

His­toric lev­els of rain and snow sub­merged her work on the Tracy Reach, a por­tion of the McCar­ran Ranch Pre­serve east of Sparks.

Work­ers had used heavy equip­ment to haul hun­dreds of tons of dirt out of the flood­plain. The idea was to undo eco­log­i­cal dam­age from pre­vi­ous chan­nel­ing projects that had dec­i­mated 90 per­cent of the na­tive plant life and 70 per­cent of the bird pop­u­la­tion.

The na­tive seedlings were the fi­nal touch. They went in just be­fore the river rose.

“This was es­sen­tially bare ground,” said Leonard, a restora­tion tech­ni­cian for The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy.

Then the wa­ter rose. And rose. And rose.

At its peak Leonard es­ti­mated the river was flow­ing at about 15,000 cu­bic feet per se­cond at the ranch, roughly eight times higher than nor­mal, she said.

“We didn’t know flood­ing was go­ing to hap­pen like this,” Leonard said.

When it fi­nally re­ceded, Leonard wor­ried she would find the flood­ing had washed away the river bank and the seeds.

In­stead, she found an ecosys­tem much more vi­brant than be­fore, with cot­ton­wood trees, sun­flow­ers, sage and wil­low push­ing out of the ground. The abun­dant wa­ter soaked the soil around the river and gave the seeds a chance to take root.

“We feel very, very ex­cited,” Leonard said. “It is func­tion­ing well, sort of as we had hoped.”

That’s im­por­tant be­cause it means an­other stretch of the Truc­kee River could re­turn to what it was like be­fore 20th cen­tury de­vel­op­ment nearly de­stroyed the area as a liv­ing en­tity.

Back then peo­ple thought the best way to con­trol flood­ing in the Reno-Sparks area was to chan­nel­ize the river down­stream from town, en­abling it to carry more wa­ter.

They straight­ened the river and raised and for­ti­fied the banks.

One un­fore­seen con­se­quence, how­ever, was that the wa­ter sped up as it trav­eled through the nar­row course and dug deeper into the ground be­low.

As it dug deeper the wa­ter ta­ble sank lower and, even­tu­ally, it dropped be­neath the roots of the veg­e­ta­tion. Trees and plants died and wildlife dis­ap­peared.

“It just acted as a drain,” Leonard said.

To­day, how­ever, the flora is re­turn­ing, which is a good sign for wildlife. Veg­e­ta­tion will help pro­tect the river banks from erod­ing. And as the cot­ton­wood trees ma­ture they will pro­vide shade that blocks sun­light from reach­ing the wa­ter, which will help keep it at tem­per­a­tures that sup­port fish.

The seedlings sur­vived the flood­ing in large part be­cause the area Leonard planted is down­stream from prior restora­tion work that re-es­tab­lished a more nat­u­ral, me­an­der­ing chan­nel.

Since 2003 the con­ser­vancy, along with lo­cal, state, fed­eral and tribal gov­ern­ments, re­stored 10 miles of river at the for­mer Mus­tang, 102 and McCar­ran ranches, Lock­wood and the Tracy Reach.

Ben­jamin Spillman The As­so­ci­ated Press

Lori Leonard of The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy walks Aug. 30 along a re­cently re­stored section of the Truc­kee River east of Sparks.

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