Water that was – experiences in California & Nevada

So far everywhere that we’ve travelled has been in the grip of a drought. In California the snow-pack last winter was only five per cent of usual so there has been no snow melt to refill the reservoirs. There are signs everywhere exhorting people to conserve water and locals that we’ve spoken to about it are very weary and seem to feel that rain is never going to come. In northern Nevada questions are being asked about how much water the dairying industry consumes which has echoes of the debate in Canterbury, which does look at bit like Nevada in places. There are irrigated green fields in amongst the brown so there still water coming from somewhere for some people. All of this does give Eddie a chance to use his favourite conversation opener – questions about the weather.

In eastern California Mono Lake has suffered from years of water extraction for irrigation. In 1994 it was agreed that extraction would be reduced to allow the lake to return to 1961 levels but it is now a long way below even the 1994 level. The photo shows Eddie heading down to the lake somewhere near the 1994 level. The remarkable tufa towers used to be in the lake.



Mono Lake

Lake Washoe (east of Lake Tahoe) is a startling illustration of how dry things are. The lake is 6.5 kms long and more than 3 kms wide and is normally about 3.5 metres deep. At the moment it is a meadow and the photo below shows Eddie & I on the ‘lakeshore’. The lake also disappeared in 1990s and early 2000s.  Washoe Lake is an important stop for migratory birds and also has a population of shellfish and I imagine fish and other animals. I wonder how long it takes them to come back, especially the shellfish who can’t move here very easily. The lake drying up is not a new thing though, as evidenced by sand-dunes made over thousands of years during dry periods.


Washoe Lake

After Washoe Lake we’d planned to stay at Lake Lahotan, a reservoir further east but it is now a large brown puddle and not an attractive proposition at all. The next day (after overnighting in our first RV park) we stopped at Grimes Point Archeological Area, one of the largest petroglyph (rock art) sites in the US with the art work in the photo below believed to be about 6,000 years old. Until about 10,000 years ago much of Nevada was covered by vast lakes and Lake Lahotan once reached this far (about 35 kms away from the brown puddle) and Grimes Point was a rocky peninsula. The old lake levels can be seen below the two pointed hills in the distance. Today Grimes Point is in the middle of a dry area near Fallon and while we were there we were deafenened by fighter jets taking off from the airbase nearby.


Eddie at Grimes Point with rock-art

We travelled through Nevada’s dry back-country to reach Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. The attraction here was the chance to see fossils of this strange dolphin like creature, a reptile that roamed the seas at the time of dinosaurs. Ichthyosaur fossils are found all over the world but the specimans found at this site are the largest – about 15 metres long. The site of the remains have been preserved in a ‘fossil house’ which Eddie and I had a tour of for the princely sum of $3 each. Thanks Ranger Mike.


An artist's representation of a 15m long ichthyosaur

In the same state park is the ghost town of Berlin, established in 1896 to exploit silver. It lasted until 1911 by which time nearly five kilometres of tunnels had been built and $849,000 of silver extracted. I am not sure what that would equate to in today’s money. We’d been hoping to explore the Diana Mine but a flash-flood about three weeks before had filled the mine with silt. Sadly the flood had also flowed through some of the buildings and, as there didn’t appear to much money being spent in the park, it didn’t seem likely it would be removed.


One of the gullies that provided a shute for floodwaters


The Berlin Mill where the ore was processed


Mrs Steven's house at Berlin

Apart from the damage caused it’s hard to believe that there’s been  much rain. Most of Nevada consists of unestimatable acres of hardy sage brush. I like Nevada, it’s empty and stark and has fantastic and varied rock formations. But despite a lot of mining activity rural areas are suffering and we saw lots of abandoned buildings and many small towns seemed to be barely clinging on. And while I like the balmy Nevada evenings, it’s been really hot (37 at Fallon) so I’m looking forward to cooler temperatures on the higher plateaus in Utah and Arizona.

About Julia Bradshaw

Historian and writer living in Hokitika, New Zealand. Special interests are the goldrushes, the West Coast of New Zealand, crime and the stories of women and Chinese on the goldfields. Also keen on tramping (hiking) and involved in the Mt Brown Hut Community Project.
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3 Responses to Water that was – experiences in California & Nevada

  1. Joy Baker says:

    The vastness is really well expessed, Julia. It is alarming at the change of water levels over the years. Dairying definitely seems to be leaving it’s mark. The tufa rocks look really interesting too.

  2. david says:

    Still following your travels, sounds a bit like the Outback of Western Australia. Interesting to read about the silver mine. I hope that Eddie is behaving. Safe travels. DavidV

  3. Jim Ebenhoh says:

    Great to read about your travels Julia (and Eddie). You’re making me homesick for my own country, though the part you’re in isn’t exactly my home turf. Keep posting!

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