Western Environmental
Testing Laboratory
El Niño 2015

No one living on the West coast has been able to escape the boisterous predictions about El Niño and its potential impact this winter.  At WETLAB, we have been keeping a close eye on what the experts are saying about the storm, and keeping our fingers crossed that it means lots of new snow.  However, there are new predictions out saying that El Niño may bring a lot of moisture, but it might be warm.  This spells bad news for our drought-stricken region, where it was recently found that the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada’s is at a 500-year low.  Of course, some moisture is better than none, but rain brings a higher possibility of mudslides and erosion.  Sadly, there is no way to know what’s going to happen until it happens, so now we must all wait with baited breath and crossed fingers, hoping for snow.

Predicted El Niño weather pattern, courtesy of Accuweather.com

Predicted El Niño weather pattern, courtesy of Accuweather.com

Nevada is home to many beautiful, expansive, and green golf courses.  But, Nevada is also a dry, arid desert which is currently going through a severe drought, and there’s no end in sight.  How are these two seemingly irreconcilable realities coexisting?  Well, that’s a multi-faceted answer.

Golf courses go hand-in-hand with Nevada’s hospitality and luxury industries, and companies would be hard pressed to simply let their green investments die a brown, crunchy death.  So companies, and courses, have gotten a little creative.  While they started with the obvious measures of reducing overall usage, and examining pipes for leaks, the reduction was simply was not enough.  Golf courses have now started using treated effluent water as a means for watering their massive lawns.  Many courses in Nevada, especially those lining the Las Vegas strip, have used gray water for several years, but effluent water is a newer usage concept.  Effluent water differs from gray water in that it must be more treated, since it can contain sewage.  Using effluent water, instead of fresh water or even gray water, means a reduction of demand for potable water, which in turn means that our dwindling water supply can hold out a bit longer.

Northern Nevada golf courses have capitalized on the use of treated effluent water as a means to water their grass.  It’s clear that the water-saving measure isn’t negatively impacting the golf courses, too, because the lawns are bright green and thriving.  You just have to drive by Washoe County’s Sierra Sage Golf Course in Stead to see that this is a great way to water the turf.  Sierra Sage gets their water from the City of Reno’s Stead Water Reclamation Facility, where the effluent water is treated to the point where it is no longer dangerous, but still not potable.

Another impact of this ever-worsening drought?  Shorter winters mean more time on the putting green.


WETLAB tests effluent water for EPA compliance, and water for golf courses is no exception.  WETLAB will also test all of your runoff and fertilizer samples, call (775) 355-0202 for more information.

Effluent water could soon become part of your normal drinking water in Northern Nevada.  According to KTVN, reclaimed water is around 30% cheaper than potable water, but the problem is that waste water is not drinkable yet. Yet is the key word here, because regulations that define how much the water will need to be treated are working their way through the Nevada state legislature, and lawmakers are hoping to see them adopted by the 2017 session.

As everyone knows, Northern Nevada is suffering a severe drought.  Having another way to reuse water will have a great, positive environmental impact on our already low waterways.  Effluent water is already being used in some ways, mostly to irrigate parks and golf courses, but more could be put back into eventual use by the proposed measure.  The process involves injecting semi-treated water directly into the ground, so that it will later make its way back into our pipes.  This will ease the strain that is currently put on the Truckee River, which will in turn help with our ecosystem.

Effluent water is defined as waste-water, whether treated or not, that flows out from an industrial treatment plant or sewer.  Secondary effluent is that same water that has been treated, but not to the point of purity.  Obviously, the main difference between potable and effluent water is the cleanliness of the water, and its fitness for human consumption.

WETLAB preforms several tests on effluent water for many different clients, including public and private companies.  Some of these tests are Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), which tests how much oxygen demand the effluent water has, and Total Suspended Solids (TSS), which tests the amount of suspended solids within an aqueous sample.  Several other tests are often performed in tandem on effluent water samples, including Total Nitrogen, Nitrate + Nitrite, Ammonia, Total Phosphorous, and Fecal Coliform.  These tests all provide a detailed profile of what exactly is contained in an effluent sample, and allow proprietors to know how to best treat their water.

Singapore and Texas have already implemented effluent-to-drinking-water purification systems, with positive results.  To read more about this program in Nevada, and to see an interesting news report on it, click here.

According to a recent article in the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Tahoe in Depth Newsletter, the clarity levels of Lake Tahoe are improving.  Lake clarity increased due to several factors, high among them being the continuing drought.  Lower amounts of precipitation means less runoff into the lake, which means that fewer pollutants find their way into Tahoe’s waters.  The extreme regional drought has brought a small glimmer of good news, but that news pales in comparison to its terrible effects elsewhere.  However, if we focus on the bright side, Lake Tahoe clarity levels are at a decade long high.

Water clarity in Lake Tahoe is measured using a Secchi Disk.  The Secchi disk is a white disk that is lowered into a body of water.  The clarity measurement is then obtained by seeing how far the Secchi disk can lowered into the water while still remaining visible.  In Lake Tahoe, the clarity has historically been remarkable, with data suggesting clearness to approximately 120 feet.  While the lake is nowhere near that clear now, currently hovering around 70 feet, it is still a measure of how the lake is currently faring in its ever-expanding use.

Water clarity is an important indicator of lake health.  One of the reasons for Lake Tahoe’s remarkable clarity is due to the amount of rain that falls directly on the lake.  Approximately 40% of rainfall that contributes to the lakes watershed is directly onto the lake itself.  This is a very large amount of water that does not have to flow into the lake via runoff, meaning that the clarity is not negatively impacted.

Several measures have been taken to increase Lake Tahoe’s clarity levels, including the very popular “Keep Tahoe Blue” campaign (more information can be found here).  Another important tactic is the institution of the Lake Tahoe Total Maximum Daily Load, which WETLAB has previously written about here.

According the Reno Gazette-Journal, the recent rains experienced by northern Nevada and Lake Tahoe will ultimately have little impact on lake water levels.  The recent precipitation has pushed Lake Tahoe up to its natural rim, but will drop as the weather continues to warm.

There has been a reported 1.42 inches of rainfall in South Lake Tahoe between May 14 and 25, and just about one inch in Reno-Sparks.

While any rain is good for our local water table, the amount we received in May is simply not enough to make a large difference for the rest of the summer. By the end of the summer, Lake Tahoe is expected to be several feet below its rim.

The long standing drought in California and Nevada shows few signs of stopping anytime soon.

More about this story can be found here.

2015 Seasonal Drought Outlook, Courtesy of the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center

With the Sierra snowpack 1/3rd of normal for this time of year, it doesn’t look like a recovery from drought conditions are likely, according to an article on KSBW.com.

A survey earlier this month found the Truckee River Basin was only at 32 percent of normal, the Tahoe Basin was at 47 percent and the Carson River Basin was at 55 percent, according to the article. It’s an improvement from a month prior, where the snowpack was as low as 14 percent of normal.

While reduced irrigation and watering are a typical reaction to pending drought conditions, some experts in the Reno area are actually urging residents and businesses to water trees to help them survive the drought, according to an article written by the Associated Press.

The Reno Urban Forestry Commission says the region has seen a significant increase in tree deaths over the past several years, which is a threat to public safety and requires costly removal, according to the article.

As Nevada ranchers, farmers and residents brace for a desperately dry summer, one big glimmer of hope is emerging in this third year of drought.

Climate scientists are becoming increasingly confident that El Niño conditions will emerge by the end of this upcoming summer, boosting the chances for a wet, snowy and potentially drought-busting winter next year. El Niño is a climate phenomenon caused by warming water in the Pacific Ocean. In the past, El Niños have produced prodigious winters on the West Coast, including soakers like 1997-98 that dropped more than 36 inches of rain in Sonoma County in February alone. That same winter more than 186 inches of snow fell in February at Alpine Meadows ski resort.

El Niños do not guarantee a big winter, but according to the Western Regional Climate Center, “El Niño usually (not always) brings wetter winters to central and especially southern California. Large El Niños (a very limited sample) appear to extend wet conditions further north.”

Some climate scientist are calling for a 75 percent chance of an El Niño year next winter, which should be welcome news for ranchers and farmers in Nevada who are already planning to stop planting crops this season or reduce the size of their livestock herds because of the scarcity of water.

As skiers, ranchers and farmers know, weather forecasting is notoriously fickle even days before a storm, and predicting winter weather nearly a year in advance is admittedly imprecise. But El Niño’s potential to drench the West Coast with powerful, jet-stream-propelled storms is well documented by climate scientists.

In a winter were storms have been few and far between, that hope of an El Niño winter that will end the drought by filling reservoirs and re-charging aquifers is a welcome piece of positive news. Climate scientists will continue to track the warming Pacific Ocean temperatures through a vast network of buoys. How much the ocean warms over the next several months could have a dramatic impact on whether the winter of 2014-15 is a drought-busting season of storms, or another year of parched conditions.

The Sierra’s first snow survey, conducted early this month, indicated what we already knew – it’s the beginning of another dry year.

 According to a recently published article in the Sacramento Bee, California experienced one of the driest starts to winter ever recorded. In fact, in its first snow survey, the California Department of Water Resources found the snowpack at only 20 percent of average – a water supply crucial to both California and Nevada.

In the northern Sierra, according to the Bee, which supplies much of the Reno-Sparks’ area water via the Truckee River, the snowpack is just 10 percent of average.

That stacks up to 9.3 inches of snow depth – 2.3 inches of water content – at Echo Summit near South Lake Tahoe, according to an article in the Sierra Sun.

The results weren’t surprising after 2013’s record-setting drought, the driest in California’s 119 years of data, according to the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno.

“The water situation is bad; we’re kind of in unprecedented conditions. We’re looking at a year that’s potentially going to be worse than the 1976-77 drought,” John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, noted in the Sacramento Bee article.

Reports by the Reno Gazette-Journal indicate that if the weather keeps up, California will only be able to deliver 5 percent of the water requested by 29 public agencies this year.

“While we hope conditions improve, we are fully mobilized to streamline water transfers and take every action possible to ease the effects of dry weather on farms, homes and businesses as we face a possible third consecutive dry year,” said Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources in an issued statement.

At Lake Tahoe, officials are already urging conservation, according to the Sierra Sun.

“Every gallon a customer conserves will help preserve the necessary water resources available during a drought situation,” Tony Laliotis, director of utilities for the Tahoe City Public Utility District told the Sun. “Conserving water in the winter is just as important as conserving in the summer.”

The season isn’t over yet though, as some officials have pointed out.

“One giant storm can turn it around,” said Steven Poncelet of the Truckee Donner Public Utility District in the Sierra Sun article.

In the latest chapter on a controversial subject we’ve discussed before on the WETLAB blog, a judge has once again rejected a Southern Nevada Water Authority pipeline aimed at eastern Nevada water.

This is the second time a judge has blocked the project since 2009, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which would siphon billions of gallons a year from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas.

Seventh District Court Judge Robert Estes ruled that Nevada’s chief water regulator needed to recalculate and reduce how much water could safely be taken from Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys, according to the article.

Estes found that the amount of water proposed would affect other water rights, particularly in Spring Valley, where the project would mean the valley wouldn’t reach equilibrium even after 200 years.

He said the project, “is unfair to following generations of Nevadans and is not in the public interest,” according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.

The proposed project, according to the Las Vegas Sun, would have cost $6.5 billion over 10 years, and has been protested by environmental groups, ranchers and Indian tribes.

If approved, the deal would have taken an estimated 84,000 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons.

“There is no objective standard to determine when mitigation efforts will be eliminated and implemented,” Estes said in the Sun article, requiring the State Engineer, Jason King, to take steps to avoid potential environmental impacts.

While King said he was disappointed, opponents lauded the decision. And while the decision has been made for now, it didn’t dispute the need for water for Southern Nevada outside of the Colorado River supply – an issue that will continue to arise as time goes on.


As the consequences of the government shutdown continue to unfold, one interesting water-related headline popped up in northeastern Nevada – wild horses near Elko that were unable to get water.

The Elko Daily Free Press reported that Jackie Wiscombe, a contractor with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who hauled water for wild horses on BLM land, was told to stop.

“Due to the government shutdown, these animals are in dire circumstances with no water available,” she said in an Oct. 10 article.

Following that article, BLM Elko District Director Jill Silvey sent an employee to check on the horses and water conditions, according to a second article published Oct. 12.

Silvey said that hauling water to the horses was considered an essential service, not intended to be shut down, which meant Wiscombe could go back to work.

“I like working with the BLM office,” she said, “and they really do care about these wild horses.”

Winter Weather & Water Update 

Accuweather.com is the latest player to throw its hat in the ring with winter weather predictions, claiming a wet and snowy winter for much of the West.

“With the East as an exception, most ski resorts country-wide should not have a problem getting up and running this winter,” The prediction states. “This season’s precipitation may even bring drought relief to California, replenishing reservoirs and easing water shortages.”

In particular, the forecast calls for heavy precipitation between December and January.

We always take these long-term forecasts with a grain of salt, but its always nice to find an encouraging forecast.