High and dry

California's historic drought, now in its third year, is causing massive habitat loss for trout and salmon. In the Lake Tahoe region, TU is doing whatever it takes to save local trout streams.


By David Lass

It was only a matter of time before something terrible happened.

California is in the grip of an extreme drought, and the effects on cold water fisheries are playing out from the Klamath River to the trout streams of the Sierra Nevada. Recently, these effects showed up in full force on the Little Truckee River, one of the best trout streams anywhere.

On July 29th, water releases from Boca Reservoir, which provides flow to a popular stretch of the “LT,” were shut off overnight as there simply wasn’t any more contract water to release. Releases went from 250 cubic feet per second (“cfs”) in a matter of hours to less than 1 cfs, stranding hundreds of wild brown and rainbow trout and native mountain whitefish.

Trout Unlimited staff and Truckee River TU chapter members had been tracking the situation and were in close communication with the Federal Water Master -- who operates water releases in the Truckee Basin – days before the shut-off.

Local photographer and TRTU activist Stefan McLeod contacted me early on the morning of July 30th and we went out to assess the damage. We were shocked at what we saw.

Just days before, Stefan happily caught and released wild ‘bows and browns exceeding 20” in runs that now were completely dry.  Dramatic as it was, we both found a shred of humor as we picked up numerous hand-tied flies Stefan had lost on a mid-river snag.

That laughter was short lived as we walked up the dry riverbed, finding dead trout every few feet.

But we also found a silver lining. There was still residual water in a series of pools, and these pools were chock full of trout, whitefish and sculpin. We knew we had to take advantage of the short window for action.

Stefan contacted the NBC television affiliate out of Sacramento, who ultimately covered the story later that night, helping to raise awareness and organize volunteers, and I called contacts at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to schedule a fish rescue (in California, only CDFW can orchestrate fish rescues/relocations).

Early on the morning of the 31st, CDFW biologists met TU volunteers at the river and went to work. Together, this team successfully relocated hundreds of fish to the nearby Truckee River, providing these fish a chance to become the next generation of Truckee River trophies.

Drought conditions exacerbate what are already complex water situations. No one wants to have to rescue stranded fish, but difficult times call for extraordinary measures. Thanks to quick action from local TU volunteers and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, we headed off more serious impacts on an important resource. TU’s powerful “boots on the ground” capability delivered a real-time solution at a critical time.

Now it’s time to refocus our energies on gaining minimum releases from Boca Reservoir and setting up a chain of command protocol between stakeholders to prevent this crisis from happening again.


Dave Lass is California Field Director for Trout Unlimited.



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