Sunday, November 04, 2007

Lahontan Dam Transformed Nevada

Near the start of the 20th century, the Lahontan Reservoir was looked upon as the way to transform the dry Nevada landscape into a paradise.

Lahontan’s story begins in 1889, when the United States Geological Survey conducted several studies to determine the practicality of irrigating large portions of the American West. One of the regions considered was Western Nevada, near the location of modern-day Fallon.

In 1902, the United State Bureau of Reclamation was created expressly to build projects that would transport water to dry and dusty parts of the West, including Nevada.

Among the first five projects selected for construction by the new agency was the Truckee-Carson Project, which later became known as the Newlands Reclamation Project, in honor of U.S. Senator Francis G. Newlands of Nevada, author of the 1902 National Reclamation Act.

The project was grand in scope, involving the construction of 104 miles of canals, 504 miles of laterals and 335 miles of open ditches—all designed to move water from the Truckee and Carson rivers to a dry spot in the desert that would be transformed into an oasis.

Work began on the project in 1903 with the building of the Truckee Canal and the Derby Diversion Dam, which divert water from the Truckee River (at a point about 32 miles east of Reno) to Fallon.

Construction continued for nearly 15 years, with other elements added such as the Carson River Diversion Dam (1905), the Lahontan Power Plant (1911), the Lake Tahoe Dam sluiceway (1913) and the Lahontan Dam, completed in 1914.

The latter was the most impressive single structure. It is an earthen dam measuring about 120 feet high and 1,300 feet wide. Curving concrete spillways, which look like giant steps, were built at each end and a massive concrete outlet tower was built in front of the dam.

Water from the spillways flows into a 220-foot pool on the opposite side of the reservoir and from there the water falls back into the Carson River, with a portion diverted to a small electrical powerhouse.

Both the dam and the powerhouse haven’t changed much in the past 80 years. The dam has many unique early 20th century architectural touches, such as the row of old-fashion light posts lining the top of the dam and the intricate concrete arch and metalwork on the suspension footbridge leading to the outlet tower.

The powerhouse is a substantial stone and concrete structure on the river’s edge that houses three generators. Completed before the dam, it supplied hydroelectric power for the machinery used to build the dam. Today, it provides power to the surrounding area.

The original supporters of the Newlands Project were extremely bullish about its prospects, predicting that when completed it would irrigate more than 400,000 acres. The estimates proved overly optimistic as only about 70,000 acres are irrigated by the project.

The 100,000-acre reservoir, however, surpassed expectations in terms of recreational uses. At 23 miles long, it has about 70 miles of shoreline and can retain 320,000 acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover an acre of land with a foot of water).

Operated by the Nevada Division of State Parks, the reservoir regularly accommodated nearly a half-million people each year—and most of them seemed to be there on the July 4 weekend. It has more than two dozen beaches with picnicking and swimming as well as 50 camping sites with a dump stations, drinking water and boating launching facilities.

The name, Lahontan, is derived from the name given to the prehistoric lake that once covered much of Nevada and honors Baron de Lahontan, a famous 19th century French explorer.

The Lahontan Recreation Area is located nine miles west of Fallon (or about 45 miles east of Carson City via U.S. 50).

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Elm said...

Here it is a little less than a year since your post and the Lahontan reservoir is maybe a few feet deep at it's deepest.
We live an easy horseback ride up the Carson river from the Res' and it is just about dried up. Currently, there is no water going over the dam at all. In fact - the waterline is yards away from the dam base.
The Carson river - which flows along our back field is about 4+ feet deep, good for this time of year.
I understood that two broken canals over the past year led to the Res being low- but if this goes on another month there will be no water at all there.

Stein Høibø said...

Thanks for good reading.

My mothers uncle were supervisor at the Lahontan dam construction.
He emigrated early to the USA, but returned to Norway in the early thirties. I have some photo documentation from the construction period, back home in Norway.

I will for sure visit places he worked in the USA in a couple of years.

Thanks again for posting this.