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The Sparks Marina: Past, Present, Future

Businesses and real estate around the Sparks Marina took a hard hit after the recession and both have been slow to regain momentum. That, together with some high-profile ecological issues, has left many in the area with mixed perceptions about the health and vitality of this lake community. For our series, Beyond Tahoe: Exploring Our Waterways, Reno Public Radio’s Esther Ciammachilli reports.

Lisa G. is known as the Mayor of the Sparks Marina. She’s the owner of Marina Paddle Fit, one of the only businesses currently open there. Lisa takes great pride in this lake.

“I think it’s beautiful and sometimes you can see down like 40 feet. And there’s days we sit here and you can see kind of where the drop offs are, kind of like in Tahoe. And so the water changes color.”

Other people may be harder to persuade. The Marina was originally the Helm’s pit, a giant quarry used for construction material that suffered contamination from a nearby oil tank farm in the late 1980s. In 1995, after decontamination, the City of Sparks acquired the land and the plan was to fill it with water and turn it into a park. The New Year’s Day Flood of 1997 sped up this process.  

“The water made their way across interstate 80 from the north Truckee drain, backed up the north Truckee drain and then the waters flooded…into what was then the Helm’s Pit…The Helm’s Pit today exists as the Sparks Marina.”

That’s John Martini, city engineer for Sparks. He says officials estimated it would take about three years to fill the 120 foot-deep ravine. So much water poured into the quarry during the flood that it was full in just two days. To give you a scale of how much water that is, here’s Martini again.

“The Marina holds about a billion gallons of water and about one to three millions gallons of ground water a day comes into the pit.”

Credit Esther Ciammachilli
These pumps siphon anywhere from 1.5 million to 3 million gallons of water a day out of the Sparks Marina everyday and into the Truckee River, where it flows east and out of the Washoe Valley.

The Marina is fed by ground water. To prevent overflow, roughly three million gallons are pumped out and into the Truckee River every day. Ground water has no oxygen and tends to sit at the bottom of the lake. However, temperature changes can cause it to mix with oxygenated water up top. This depletes the oxygen in the lake and suffocates sensitive fish.

“The fish don’t have enough oxygen in order to survive and thrive and when that oxygen depletion happens, the fish do not survive that event.”

That’s Chris Healy from the Nevada Department of Wildlife. He says events like this, called turn-overs, are actually pretty common. The Sparks Marina turned-over in 2013 and 2014 making headlines and causing thousands of fish die. Healy says they had a pretty good theory as to why this happened the first time. 2013 was an extra cold winter and a lack of wind meant the Marina didn’t get a lot of wave action, which can oxygenate the water. This created perfect turn-over conditions. And their theory stuck until it happened again and…

“…we did not have those same circumstances. It sent the Department of Wildlife and the City of Sparks to the drawing board again saying what really has gone on?”

Credit Esther Ciammachilli
The buoy in the water here is one of three in the Marina. Attached to these are devices that monitor the lakes temperature and oxygen every five meters.

Devices have been set up in the Marina to track water temperature and oxygen every five meters. Data will be collected over the next couple of years to try to solve this mystery. Healy says that their readings always show that water quality and health is very high. This should help build local confidence in the lake, which is slowly seeing a revival in development. Along the walking path is a giant free-standing parking structure that’s been sitting like an eyesore on the Marina since the recession.  

“The parking garage you see today will be wrapped with multi-family homes and we think that project will get underway early next year…It’ll be kind of neat. You’ll drive into the parking garage, park on your level, get out of your car and walk in your front door.”

Credit Esther Ciammachilli
Condos will eventually wrap this parking structure. Residents will drive into the garage, park on their level and walk in their front doors.

That’s John Martini from the city again. He says more than 100 condos will finally be built and the project should take about a year and half to complete. As for future business development, Lisa G. says her success is due to community support and perseverance.

Credit Esther Ciammachilli
They call her the Mayor of the Sparks Marina. Lisa G. is the owner of Mariana Paddle Fit, one of the only businesses that occupies the big blue building along the Marian's walking path.

“The other restaurants and stuff that have been here, a lot of times they’ll close when it’s slow. I think you just have to be here and be present.”

She says even in the dead of winter she’s out paddling around the lake. So, a word of advice to other businesses from the Mayor of the Sparks Marina, stay open and tough it out. 

Esther Ciammachilli is a former part-time broadcaster at KUNR Public Radio.
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