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Nevada tribe tries to recover native fish amid impacts of dams, climate change

A panoramic view of remote desert land and the Truckee River on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation. The Numana Dam is located on the river.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
The Numana Dam, located on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation, was built in 1971 to divert the Truckee River to the reservation for irrigation. For decades, the tribe has wanted to modify it to help recover endangered and threatened fish species.

Climate change and outdated dams are shrinking fish populations across the Mountain West and beyond. That includes a species that a Native American tribe in our region used to rely on.

On a hot spring day on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation in Northern Nevada, clouds hung over miles of remote desert land while mountain ranges pierced the overcast sky.

At the edge of a bluff, tribal member Susan Albright looked down at the Truckee River. Its cold, clear waters come from melting snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Albright, who works for the tribe’s natural resources department, caught fish in those waters as a child.

“We used to go to the mouth of the lake and just throw triple hooks out there and grab a bunch of fish and come back,” Albright said. “That’s our lifestyle. That was what everybody ate.”

Specifically, they ate Lahontan cutthroat trout, Nevada’s state fish, and cui-ui, which aren’t found anywhere else in the world. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe refer to themselves as the Cui-ui Tucutta in their Native language, which means “the cui-ui eaters.”

A close-up of a person’s gloved hands holding a fish.
Kelsey Fitzgerald
Cui-ui are an endangered fish native to the Pyramid Lake and the lower Truckee River in Northern Nevada.

But they aren’t able to eat as much these days. The cui-ui have been endangered for decades, and that’s partially because of a series of dams on the Truckee River.

One of those is the Numana Dam, which Albright looked at as water shot over the 11-foot-high structure.

“Our cui-uis can’t go back upstream because they’re bottom-feeders, and that’s as far as they can get, so they can’t go back up to Tahoe like they used to,” Albright said. “Since they put dams in there, they really put a damper on everything with our fish.”

The Numana Dam was built in 1971 to divert Truckee River water to the reservation for irrigation. For the past 20 years, the tribe has wanted to modify the dam to help the fish recover, but they kept running into the same hurdle.

“We always knew we wanted to do it, but the funding was never available,” said Donna Noel, the tribe’s natural resources director.

That changed in April, when the Interior Department announced 40 projects across the U.S. to support fish recovery and migration – including in Idaho, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah. The funding comes from the massive infrastructure package Congress passed last fall.

The tribe’s Numana Dam Fish Passage Project reeled in the biggest grant – $8.3 million to support the recovery of Lahontan cutthroats and cui-uis.

“The tribe, it’s part of their well-being, it’s part of their heritage,” Noel said. “And so, it’s good to see that the government does take that into consideration.”

Noel said the project includes installing screens to help fish swim downstream into the lake. A large underwater ramp will also be built so fish can swim up and over the dam.

But dams aren’t the only obstacle facing fish populations. The other is climate change. Cold-water fish like trout and salmon and especially vulnerable. In 2015, for example, unusually warm water killed an estimated 250,000 sockeye salmon in the Columbia River and its tributaries.

Dan Isaak, a research fisheries scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, said the warming waters are forcing fish to adapt. That’s true for sockeye and Chinook salmon that migrate from central Idaho through the Snake and Columbia rivers.

“Because the peak summer temperatures in river reservoirs are getting to be so warm now that they can be lethal, we’re seeing fish kind of evolve to migrate earlier and avoid those peak temperatures,” Isaak said. “Or migrate later in the fall when it starts to cool down again.”

Isaak said that suggests fish species are resilient. But resilience only goes so far as climate change and dams reduce the number of suitable habitats.

Take the Chinook salmon in Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, those waters supported nearly 50,000 Chinook. Now, as a series of dams and warming waters choke the river, the average is less than 1,500 fish – and dropping. Three years ago, only 322 of the salmon returned to spawn.

Back in Northern Nevada, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s goal is to finish the permitting process for its fish passage project by next year, with construction likely to start in the fall of 2023.

“We have looked at many ways of solving the problem,” Noel said. “So we’re really excited.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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