Sunday, October 01, 2006

Story of Soda Lake is Deeper Than You Might Think


Soda Lake

While Soda Lake near Fallon may look like a typical desert lake, there is much more to its story.

Not truly a natural body of water, Soda Lake was created by several factors, including the presence of natural springs, a rising water table caused by irrigation of the area and the effects of mining its depths for soda, which started in the 1850s.

In fact, in recent years the lake's historic significance has some folks talking about designating the lake as a park or putting it on the National Register of Historic Places.

Soda Lake is located about 55 miles east of Carson City via Highway 50 and Soda Lake Road, a marked paved street that is five miles west of Fallon.

Geologically speaking, the Soda Lake basin was created by a collapsed volcanic cone. The outline of the cone can best be seen on the east side of the lake, which rises high above the water. Additionally, rock hounds can find plenty of stones that are volcanic in origin on the ground around the lake.

In the 1840s, pioneers crossing the nearby 40-mile desert stumbled upon the lake as well as the natural springs adjacent to it, which were the first fresh water to be found after crossing that dreaded stretch of desolate landscape.

In the mid-1850s, several claims were filed on the lake because of the presence of extremely pure soda, which could be used in the mining operations on Virginia City's Comstock Lode.

Starting in 1875, commercial soda extraction operations commenced on the lake and two major soda works were constructed on the edge of the lake, making it one of the west's first commercially viable soda producing areas.

Records indicate that soda from the lake was of such quality that it won a gold medal at the 1876 Centennial exposition in Philadelphia.

Ironically, the completion of the Newlands Water Project in 1915, which helped spur the development of the surrounding Lahontan Valley as an agricultural and ranching oasis, marked the beginning of the end of Soda Lake's namesake business.

Irrigation water from the massive aqueduct system, which brought water to the desert valley from the Carson and Truckee rivers, percolated into the groundwater and caused the lake level to rise.

Within a few years, the soda plant was submerged, an occurrence that resulted in several lawsuits, including a landmark legal decision, which stated that the U.S. Government could be absolved from damages as a result of "unintentional" actions committed by one of its agencies.

In the end, the lake level rose from 147 feet to more than 200 feet, leaving the soda works under some 35 feet of water.
As a result of being under water, the soda works structures have remained well preserved. Over the years, the lake has become popular with divers who can swim through the relatively intact ruins of the old soda plant and other buildings.

Additionally, divers report the presence of a "ghost forest" at the southeastern end of the lake, which is believed to be the remains of a grove of cottonwood trees.

Photos of the soda works and trees are on display at the nearby Churchill County Museum in Fallon and depict a mysterious, murky underwater world filled with strange shapes and shadows.

Because of its undeveloped nature—submerged soda factory notwithstanding—the lake has become a sanctuary for a wide variety of birds. Visitors can often spot flocks of gulls, terns, ducks and other waterfowl enjoying the peace and calm of this half-hidden lake.

The lake also boasts a population of brine shrimp and underwater plants that have adapted to the high alkali content of the water.

For more information about Soda Lake, contact the Churchill County Museum, 1050 S. Maine St., Fallon, NV 89406, 775-423-3677, www.ccmuseum.org.

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