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As Pyramid Lake Popularity Grows, So Does Trash

Although it receives far less attention than Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake is one of Nevada's most picturesque desert oasis. But Pyramid faces a number of challenges as a recreational destination, including illegal dumping and increasing salinity levels. Today, as we begin our series called Beyond Tahoe: Exploring Our Waterways, reporter Julia Ritchey travels to Pyramid Lake to tell us its story.

It's a busy weekend at the Pelican boat launch at Pyramid Lake. A line of eager boaters wait to unload pontoons, jet skis and other watercraft at the bottom of the ramp.

Pelican is the only boat access point still open on 27-mile long Pyramid Lake.

Like Tahoe, Pyramid is experiencing several mild to severe side effects from the drought, the most noticeable being low water levels.

One boater quickly realizes she can’t make it work.

"Yeah, there's a drop right there; I can't get out there. ...With a smaller trailer it's not a problem, but we're like 5,500 pounds and I don't want to get stuck on that shelf."

Pyramid is one of Nevada's two terminal lakes, which means water flows in from the Truckee River but does not flow back out. It’s a remnant of Lake Lahontan, the massive Ice Age sea that once covered most of northern Nevada.

Mervin Wright is the environmental manager of Pyramid Lake and a former tribal chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

As other lakes are going dry, he’s seen more visitors show up.

"I think the use of the lake is high," he says. "It hasn't gotten to a point of overcrowdedness, (but) we do have some beaches that are heavily used."

By July of this year, in fact, about 20,000 more people had visited the lake over last year. Wright says it’s a tough balancing act because their tribe relies on the money generated from recreational permits to provide critical services for their reservation.

"The responsibility of taking care of a community from child care to social services to health care, sometimes those revenues get depleted quickly,” says Wright.

But the tribe doesn’t want to jeopardize the health of the lake either. That’s why they’ve increased permit prices to help pay for more waste disposal and closed some beaches to the public after campers vandalized ecologically sensitive areas. Many visitors to the lake say they've noticed more trash, too, including Amos Crabtree.

"I was just out here about a month ago for a friend of mine’s birthday party and we noticed quite a bit of garbage from other people,” he says. “It really is a sad thing because this was really a pristine lake 10 or 15 years ago.”

Crabtree is visiting from Palomino Valley with his daughter. He says it irks him to see so much littering happening near the lake, from soda and beer cans to dirty diapers and even old mattresses.

"The thing that bothers me is the thing that always bothers me environmentally and that's the people," says Crabtree. "Human waste, trash and the fishing line is generally the worst thing as a fisherman, a sportsman and an outdoorsman myself."

Things were getting so bad this summer, tribe officials warned campers and RVs they could be fined up to $25,000 if caught dumping raw sewage into the lake.

While trash is the most visible problem at Pyramid, its biggest threat may not be man-made, but Mother Nature herself. That’s according to Lisa Heki, project leader of the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex.

"Concentrations of salt when lakes decline is probably the most significant," says Heki. "Pyramid loses 4 vertical feet of water through evaporation every year, so it requires 400,000 acre feet of water just to maintain the elevation it’s at."

Heki cites Walker Lake in Hawthorne as a cautionary tale for what can happen when a lake gets too salty. As a sister system to Pyramid, diversion of water for irrigation has dramatically reduced Walker’s elevation over the years and made the saline levels lethal for most fish.

Pyramid is home to two highly rare fish called the Cui-ui and Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, which has been the focus of a nearly decade-long program to reintroduce it to the lake 

"We don't want to have what happened to Walker to happen here.”

That’s Mervin Wright again. In these dry years, and with such little water in the Truckee River, his tribe has relied heavily on the federal Stampede Reservoir in California for extra water.

These are by no means the only issues facing Pyramid, but Wright says they remain vigilent in protecting this precious resource for both people and fish.

"All of us that are responsible for this basin for water supply management, we have to look at this as teamwork," he says. "We're in this thing together."

Wright would like to spread this message much farther than the shores of Pyramid. Citing the popular "Keep Tahoe Blue" bumper stickers, Wright says he'd one day like to see as many cars plastered with the tribe's own "Preserve Pyramid Lake" decals.

*That was part one of our week-long series Beyond Tahoe: Exploring Our Waterways. Check back to KUNR.org the rest of the week for more from our news team.*

Julia Ritchey is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.