Water experts in this gambling state have staked their savings on what is at best an even-odds bet for a wet winter, draining most of western Nevada's drought-depleted reservoirs to keep faucets flowing this fall.
"We'll get through this year. But we're going to go into next year with basically everything empty," said Bob Firth, water resources manager for Westpac Utilities.The principal reservoir for the Reno area is Lake Tahoe, the scenic resort destination for tourists astride the Nevada-California border.
Its boat docks were on dry land early this summer, and Thursday its feeble flow to Reno went dry altogether when its level dropped below the spillways for the first time in 11 years.
Anticipating the loss of Tahoe's overflow, West-pac Utilities has been tapping Donner Lake, just across the state line in California, and is pumping as much groundwater as the state will allow to supply its 50,900 customers around Reno.
The Reno area is in a stage-three drought alert, but more strict limits are possible if the winter proves to be dry once again. Already, lawn watering is limited to one day a week, hosing off sidewalks, patios and driveways is prohibited and construction companies can't use water from hydrants for dust control. Restaurant patrons have to ask for a glass of water.
The winter snowpack in the Sierra Nevada range, which provides the summertime water for western Nevada through runoff into the Truckee and Carson rivers, has been about half of normal the past two years.
Firth and other members of Gov. Richard Bryan's 8-month-old drought committee agree that above-average snowfall in the Sierra Nevada is needed to relieve the drought and begin refilling the reservoirs.
There's scientific evidence, Firth says, that the last drought lasting as much as three consecutive years in western Nevada was around 1590.
But Bob Thompson, Nevada area manager for the National Weather Service, sets the chances for an above-average water year at only 50-50.
Along with precipitation of just 3.95 inches since Oct. 1, 1987, compared with the normal 7.5 inches, the past summer was the warmest in the 118 years that records have been kept in Reno, according to John James, state climatologist.
"We got clobbered three ways," he said. "A lack of water, high temperatures and the highest evaporation rates we've seen. That just wiped us out."
Drought committee members agree it would take winter storms around 150 percent of average to restore the diminished reservoirs.
But even with a stormy winter, "We're going to have a lot of holes to fill," Firth said.
A snowfall that's just 90 percent of normal would allow Westpac Utilities to meet the Reno area's annual 21-billion-gallon thirst with some conservation, Firth said.
But Federal Watermaster Garry Stone said nearly three times that amount would be needed to meet the water needs of both the homes, hotel-casinos and businesses around Reno and the irrigation demands of golf courses and farmers and ranchers.
This year's agricultural losses are estimated at $10 million to $15 million by University of Nevada-Reno economists.