NRCS and Walker River Paiute Tribe Team Up to Tame the Walker River
In the Great Basin, on the eastern slope of the Sierras, lies the small town of Schurz, Nevada, which is surrounded by the Walker River Paiute Tribe Indian Reservation. As the reservation's name implies, the Walker River meanders through the area, making its way through Schurz, and eventually spills into its terminus Walker Lake at the southern tip of the reservation. At high flows, the river chooses its own course as it meanders through the soils. Picture an inner tube ride at your local water park: as you start making your way through the tunnels, you pick up speed and start bouncing higher and higher from one side to the other as you splash through the course.
With the Walker River's high velocity, it carves away at embankments made of sandy loam soil-a soil perfect for local area farmers to grow their alfalfa, but easily erodible when faced with the power of the river. The river pushes off of sand bars created by soil deposits and then cuts into the area of private landowners and farmers, placing their livelihoods and even their families in jeopardy. Through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, the Nevada NRCS teamed up with the Walker River Paiute Tribe to help them control the sedimentation issue.
The Tribe has been reducing nonpoint source (NPS) pollution and improving water quality within the Tribe's portion of the Walker River. NPS pollution occurs when snowmelt, rainfall or irrigation water runs over land or through the ground, picks up pollutants such as sediment, and deposits them into rivers, lakes and coastal waters or introduces them into ground water. This can adversely affect the vegetation, flow and shape of streams and other aquatic systems.
The Tribe has completed its third river stabilization project with NRCS, so it's easy to look at the newly constructed project to see what it entails, and then go downstream to see what the result will look like months or years down the road. The treatments differ a bit at the three sites, but typically include stabilizing eroding river banks with rock revetment, willow revetments and revegetated seedings. Revetments involve sloping structures placed on river banks in such a way as to absorb the energy of incoming water.
The primary objective for the latest project was to reduce non‐point source pollution by improving bank stability. Although the area is suffering its fourth year of drought, it did allow for easier accessibility to the project area, since the river is dry. The project involved placing large rocks at the channel bottom where the greatest amount of energy normally occurs from river flow.
"The river's existing banks are primarily held together by willows, which are critical. In addition, rock tie-backs are installed to link the large toe rocks back into the project's soil benches," explained Bill Conlin, soil conservation technician for NRCS Nevada's Yerington Field Office. "The soil benches use bioengineering fabric that looks like mesh and acts as both mulch and structure to protect the banks from erosive wind and to hold moisture for newly planted seedlings which help stabilize the soil."
Willow poles are punched through the fabric down about 4 feet to hold everything together in wet soil, in addition to the seed mix.
"These projects have done a lot to open the community's eyes to how the river system works. Kids now understand why the work is done and all the people that helped with the project can spread the word," said Roy Begay, NPS Coordinator for the Tribe's projects.
The Tribe hires its own people to do the construction work on the projects to keep the funding in the local economy.