Water in the Desert
An ancient lake is reborn at Lahontan State Recreation Area.
The West is a dry place. Most states this side of the Great Plains receive far less annual precipitation than their eastern counterparts. The three driest—Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada—receive around 65 percent less rain than the national average.
It’s not that there isn’t water: Precipitation is just more of a seasonal event. In the winter, Nevada is home to multi-day blizzards and dramatic desert monsoons, and in the spring, snowmelt fills creeks and rivers to the brim. But if the water is not harvested when it comes, much of it will flow underground or be lost to evaporation.
WATERING THE WEST
In the early 1900s, it appeared that the West had hit a growth ceiling. The land that could support settlers or farmers had already been taken, and local governments could only do so much to store the seasonal waterflow. There simply wasn’t enough water available to attract new settlements. To keep the region watered year-round, thousands of dams, canals, and reservoirs would need to be built.
The daunting task of taming the West’s water supply would fall to the federal government. The project captured the imagination of the nation, including then-president Theodore Roosevelt, who dreamed of a green West dotted with countless farmsteads.
In 1902, Roosevelt signed into law the Reclamation Act. The act’s premise was simple: the government would create all the requisite infrastructure before handing it over to the stakeholders. Then, as communities benefited from the water and were able to profit off the land, they would pay the money back to the government. The building-spree across 16 states began.
The act’s first project was a dam just outside Reno on the Truckee River, which is fed by Lake Tahoe and runs east into nearby Pyramid Lake. Derby Dam—completed in 1905—successfully repurposed the Truckee for use in irrigation, though it ultimately lowered Pyramid Lake by more than 50 feet and completely depleted Winnemucca Lake.
In 1915, Lahontan Dam was completed on the Carson River outside Fallon. Water diverted from the two river systems joined together at the new dam, creating a reservoir in the Lahontan Valley. The valley and the dam are both named for Lake Lahontan, which filled much of the Great Basin 10,000 years ago. The ancient lake was born anew—at least in part—at the new Lahontan Reservoir.
LAHONTAN STATE RECREATION AREA
In 1971, Lahontan Reservoir was designated a state recreation area: The water that made Fallon’s famous farmland now doubled as an outdoor playground. Today, its 69 miles of shoreline attract visitors year-round. Whether boating, canoeing, camping, angling, hiking, birding, or horseback riding, this serene landscape promises an adventurous escape into the desert.
Lahontan State Recreation Area is open seven days a week, 365 days a year. Visit the website for the most up-to-date information on hours, campsite availability, and entry fees.