Water and Nevada

When you think of Nevada (and that’s ne-va-da, not ne-vah-duh), I bet a clear picture forms in your mind: Las Vegas and its neon lights, slot machines, Elvis, quick divorces and UFO sightings (among other things). Those are all part of it, yes. But did you know Nevada is an outdoor-lover’s paradise? My husband and I moved there in 2014, for this reason. We get about 350 days of sunshine a year. There are mountains, valleys, canyons, hot springs and old-growth forests to hike, bike, camp and explore, year-round, and much of it is pristine due to federal land management, which prevents development. In the summer, it’s warm during the day but cools down at night. Winters are full of skiing and snowboarding. The sunsets are always out of this world.

Notice how I didn’t mention anything that had to do with water? Water is not the same here. Nevada is an alpine desert, and we get the good and bad that comes with it. Water is scarce, both on the ground and coming from the skies. In Reno, where I live, I can count on two hands how many days it rained last year. Summer is hot and dry. I’ve adjusted to this climate without even realizing it; I always carry lotion and chapstick for dry skin, my yard only has native, low water plants and I stick to my designated water use days religiously.

And it’s not like we don’t have water at all – there’s the Truckee River to fish, kayak and float, and Lake Tahoe is only 40 minutes south. Tahoe is a saving grace for sure; a true oasis in the desert and it’s been a vacation spot of Californians for generations. But over the years the lake has become increasingly inaccessible (and less fun) due to overcrowding and overdevelopment. Tahoe’s water is also pure snowmelt, and combined with the depth means the lake never warms over 50 degrees, making it un-swimable for babies like myself.

Skiing in Nevada (after a particularly good storm) with Lake Tahoe in the background.

Northern Nevada, like much of California, is dependent on snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for our water. Nevada has been experiencing different stages of drought for a while now, thanks to climate change. Some parts of the state are worse than others, and it always seems like some not-too-far-away city is under the threat of actually running out of water if there’s no rainfall. The storm predictions always start in the fall, and we all hope for storms with lots of snow for a good ski and snowboard season, but also to create a good snowpack that will melt and fill our reservoirs. The drought the past few years has been rough. But even our recent “Miracle March” wasn’t enough to erase the snow drought from last season, which hadn’t erased it from the year before… and so on.  This seems to be the new normal. Storms bring precipitation, but we’re always playing catch-up from the last storm or two that didn’t bring enough. At least Reno is more fortunate than most of Nevada; we have more water resources to pull from and our proximity to the mountains and higher elevation give us a rain and snowfall advantage when compared with a city like Las Vegas. Our reservoirs are currently full and the outlook for this drought year is optimistic.

That’s why Michigan is so unique. Water is everywhere. It’s part of the culture, and people are connected to it. We all have a water here, whether it’s the Traverse Bay, the Boardman River, Lake Michigan, or for me, Birch Lake- we feel a connection to some body of water for one reason or another. It took moving away and living in a dry climate for me to truly appreciate how lucky this region is to have such an abundant resource, and how intertwined it is with our lives. And don’t get me wrong; I love living in Nevada. There are too many beautiful, serene places to count, and I love the culture. But no matter where I live, I will always miss the waterways of Michigan. A day on Lake Tahoe is never wasted, but a part of me will always wish that when I reach my hand over the side of the boat into the cool depths, I were instead feeling the warm waters of Michigan.

Kirsten Nolet is assisting FLOW this summer as part of a Patagonia-sponsored environmental internship.  She was born in the area and lived here until 2004, and tries to get back as often as she can.  She is currently employed by Patagonia as a stockroom manager and lives in Reno, Nevada.

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