Independence Lake: Protecting Our Last Resort Water Reserve

Oct 9, 2015

Independence Lake is just north of Truckee but is perhaps one of the last hidden gems of the Sierra. It’s pristine, quiet, and it serves as Reno’s last resort water supply—all reasons why more than twenty agencies are partnering to preserve it. For our series Beyond Tahoe: Exploring Our Waterways, KUNR News Director Michelle Bliss heads to this small, relatively unknown, lake to learn more.

In order to set foot on the rocky, seemingly untouched shore of Independence Lake, it’s recommended that you have 4-wheel drive. 

Chris Fichtel makes this trek every week, which includes five solid miles of bumpy dirt road. He’s a local project director for The Nature Conservancy, which owns more than 2,000 acres of forest land around the lake. Instead of phoning it in from Reno, Fichtel likes to check in firsthand. 

“A couple weeks ago when we were driving up the road to the preserve," he says, "we saw smoke off to the side of the road and obviously somebody had not put their campfire out.”

Fichtel arrived just in time, but it was a close call.

“It’s a reminder that people have to be really careful, especially in these dry conditions," Fichtel explains. "It was one of those days when the wind was starting to come up, too, and very well could have turned into a major forest fire.”

Wildfire is already a big threat because of the drought, but there’s even more concern around Independence Lake since it’s a reservoir for the Truckee Meadows Water Authority. In fact, it’s the only upstream reserve not tapped this year because of voluntary conservation and the lucky timing of just a few rainstorms. 

Up here at 7,000 feet, not much water evaporates from the lake, making it ideal for storage. 

“That is the Sierra Crest right there," Fichtel points out, "so you can see how far up in the water shed we are. There aren’t really any sources of pollution here. You can see the bottom of the lake; you can see clean rocks, and you just don’t see turbid, brown water from silt and sediment.” 

Along with being a reliable water source for humans, the lake’s purity is important for wildlife, like the ospreys, and even a pair of bald eagles, who reside here. And let’s not forget about seven original fish species that are still thriving.

“It has a lot of characteristics that it’s had for hundreds of years, thousands of years," explains Preserve Manager Dave Mandrella. "It’s, I believe, the only lake in California that has the native fish species, you know, including the Lahontan cutthroat trout.” 

Mandrella works against this gorgeous backdrop each day. It’s usually pretty peaceful, even on weekends when the boaters and hikers trickle in, but occasionally he’ll hear logging crews hard at work.

For the past five years, the Nature Conservancy has been thinning 600 acres of nearby forest to prevent wildfires from spreading around the lake. Just one big blaze could cause serious erosion, ultimately impacting water quality and fish spawning. 

Roger Bales, who directs the Sierra Nevada Research Institute in Merced, has been studying the benefits of tree thinning for almost a decade:

“Some of our forests, I really believe, are at a tipping point because the densities have grown to be very high during the past century or so of fire suppression.”

Some fire is natural and necessary to thin forests, but by fighting every fire, Bales says we’ve left way too many trees competing for water or becoming dried-up fuel. He’s also found that be restoring a forest to its spare historic state could increase our water yield by as much as 16 percent.

“Think of the soil," Bales says, "most all the water goes into the soil, be it snowmelt or rain. And then you have these trees pulling it upward and you have gravity pulling it downward to the stream.” 

Those trees are sucking on snowmelt and their thick canopy can keep precipitation from ever hitting the ground. Cutting some of them down is the immediate Band Aid, but it’s not cheap at up to $1,700 an acre. It’s also not a long-term solution.

“What we’re actually hoping to do to follow up all this thinning we’ve done is over time, start to re-introduce fire" Chris Fichtel explains. "While we can’t just light a match and hope lightning strikes, we are going to start a controlled burn program out here.”

Fichtel’s crew is drafting that plan now and the first controlled burn at Independence Lake could be set as early as next spring.