Earlier this spring, elementary school students appeared fascinated — sometimes squeamish — while touching native plants, bugs and fish at the ranch 15 miles east of Sparks. Students touched trout before the fish were deposited in the river. The April field trips were timed for Earth Day but strong interest by educators will prompt more school days at the ranch.
"There is such a demand and interest by teachers, we may do some school sessions in the fall to accommodate those teachers," said Patti Bakker, The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) project manager for the Truckee River Restoration Project. "It's a great experience for students, the wetland critters like bugs and tadpoles."
Students learned some of the differences between meandering rivers and straight ones. Meanders help slow the river, provide greater habitat for plants and wildlife and "re-connect the river with the floodplain" according to Bakker.
"Restoration is one component of flood control," she said. Flooding in downstream areas should reduce flooding in upstream urban areas such as Sparks and Reno, Bakker added.
The Truckee River Restoration Project includes reversal of channeling done by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in the early 1960s to return it to its natural state. The Corps’ project straightened and deepened the river in an attempt to reduce upstream urban flooding. As a result, trees, birds and fish disappeared along with wetlands as the water table dropped. Tall whitetop and other tough, invasive weeds blanketed the excavated channels choking out willows and other native plants.
Water quality declined and urban flooding continued unabated, as seen in the 1997 New Year's Flood that damaged parts of Sparks and Reno.
Five years ago, in an environmental about-face, local officials created the Truckee River Flood Project to reverse the damage and restore some of the river's original floodplain, reduce urban floods, improve water quality and expand recreation access. The Nature Conservancy, funded with government grants and fueled by volunteer labor, is restoring sections of the lower river. Starting in 2003 with the 305-acre McCarran Ranch, the work continues at Lockwood, Mustang Ranch and the 102 Ranch near Patrick.
Contracted by TNC, bulldozers re-dredged the river from straight to winding and raised the riverbed. A higher water table and wetlands were needed to support a restored riparian (river) habitat. Thousand of re-planted native trees, willows and grasses are intended to shelter native fish, birds, frogs and turtles. River forests and marshes help filter out human-caused river pollution, including nitrogen and phosphorus, according to the TNC's website.
Fighting weeds and keeping new plants alive are constant battles for TNC staff and volunteers. Plants must be watered with networks of irrigation pipe and protected from ravenous rabbits and other herbivores. Native Lahontan cutthroat trout from tribal and government hatcheries are planted each spring.
Long-term effects of the McCarran Ranch restoration project are being monitored for water quality, water levels, vegetation and wildlife. Some native birds, gone for decades, have re-appeared, including the willow flycatcher and western bluebird.
A stubborn neighbor delayed TNC's plans for public access earlier this year, Bakker said. Union Pacific Railroad owns a busy set of tracks just north of the ranch. McCarran Ranch access now requires a hazardous railroad crossing by visitors. TNC had funding available for construction of a road overpass or underpass but Union Pacific would not agree to the idea, Bakker said this week.
"That's why it (public access) is taking so long," Bakker explained. To avoid the railroad problem, another solution was found: Safer public access will be established on the south side of the ranch off Waltham Way. For special events at the park's west-side amphitheater, visitors will still have to cross the train tracks.
"We are still looking at having trails open this fall, about four miles of trails with interpretive signage on the nature and history of the ranch," Bakker said. Non-motorized recreation such as fishing, canoeing and birdwatching will be allowed.
The Nature Conservancy needs volunteer labor for upcoming re-vegetation projects. For more information, call TNC at 322-4990 or go to nature.org/nevada