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Tahoe dam 100-year anniversary, Part I

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Amidst all the hoopla this summer about the 150th anniversary of the founding of Tahoe City, let’s not forget that 2013 also is the 100-year mark for the final construction of the Tahoe Dam, arguably the town’s most important landmark.

Completed in 1913, this modest, 17-gate concrete dam regulates all of Lake Tahoe’s reservoir capacity; meaning any water stored above the lake’s natural rim at elevation 6,223 feet. The Lake Tahoe Basin is a primary source of water for the Truckee River, and the Tahoe Dam is the gateway between the two. Today, the 105-mile-long Truckee River is a vital source of high quality water for wildlife and fish habitat, recreation and many western Nevada communities. It may not look like much, but the modern Tahoe Dam represents the United States’ initial efforts toward comprehensive water management on Western rivers. It was the first step in a process that ultimately led to massive feats of engineering like the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams. Yes, it all began here.

Lake Tahoe is renowned for its scenic splendor, but ever since the region was first explored and settled, farmers, ranchers and entrepreneurs have coveted its water. In the 1860s, the first rock and log splash dam was constructed several miles below Tahoe’s outlet to boost late summer river flow and facilitate log fluming to mills in Truckee. Logging for the transcontinental railroad and Nevada Comstock mining industry was big business at the time. The Truckee Lumber Company was established near Donner Lake in 1867 and in its first year of operation that mill alone produced 10,000 railroad ties and 2 million feet of bridge timber for Central Pacific Railroad.

In August 1864, the Lake Bigler [Tahoe] Canal Company was formed to divert Truckee River water to the American River on the Sierra west slope for mining, irrigation and manufacturing in western Placer County. That idea didn’t fly, but the following year Alexis Von Schmidt, a San Francisco civil engineer, formed the Lake Tahoe and San Francisco Water Works Company with the intent of supplying Tahoe water to San Francisco via an aqueduct. It wasn’t Von Schmidt’s first attempt at hijacking Tahoe water.

In 1863, he had submitted an ambitious plan to the Board of Aldermen in Virginia City, Nev. Von Schmidt explained to the city’s leaders how Tahoe water could be piped over Spooner Summit down to Carson City, through the Washoe Basin, and then up to a reservoir on Mount Davidson above the Comstock mines. Unfortunately for Von Schmidt, the aldermen doubted the feasibility of the elaborate and expensive pumping system needed to lift the water to the 6,000-foot elevation of Virginia City.

Prussian-born, but educated at American universities, in 1865 Von Schmidt purchased a half-section of land surrounding the Lake Tahoe outlet for $3 an acre, which included the right to appropriate 500 cubic feet per second of water. It was a subtle and inauspicious start to what Von Schmidt was intent on engineering; a water project that he considered nothing less than the “Grandest Aqueduct in the World.” Surveys were undertaken to construct a canal from the lake’s outlet at Tahoe City to Squaw Valley, where a tunnel was to be excavated through the Sierra to the North Fork of the American River. A complex system of pipes, tunnels, ditches, aqueducts and reservoirs would transport the water to a storage facility at Hunter’s Point for use in San Francisco.

By 1870, Von Schmidt’s company had completed a crib dam built of wood and stone that raised Lake Tahoe’s water level several feet. But, Alex Von Schmidt’s diversion scheme was scrapped in April 1870 when the California Legislature granted Truckee River improvement rights to the Donner Lumber and Boom Company. Owned by Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford, powerful principals of the Central Pacific Railroad, the DL&BC became the only entity with the right to build a dam at the Tahoe outlet.

Von Schmidt’s dam caused trouble from the start. Water impounded for log fluming caused flooding along shoreline owned by politically influential lakefront property owners. The original dam was later enlarged when the Truckee River General Electric Company acquired ownership to provide a steady, year-round water source for hydroelectric power plants along the river. Based on this seemingly reliable and inexpensive energy source, entrepreneurs built many processing and manufacturing plants along the Truckee River.

But the status quo would begin to change in 1892 when a well-connected attorney, Francis G. Newlands, was elected to the United States House of Representatives, a position he would hold for 10 years. Congressman Newlands’ vision for Nevada required moving away from the state’s mining and ranching past toward a new era based on irrigated agriculture. He advocated the use of modern scientific knowledge to advance economic development in the western states and proposed a network of reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada to serve the future development of the Silver State. Newlands also considered the arid West as a geographic unit unrestricted by state boundaries. Even though virtually all of the Sierra Nevada is within California’s border, Newlands stated that Lake Tahoe afforded the “cheapest reservoir space in the West.”

Beginning in 1901, Newlands introduced legislation known as the National Reclamation Act, a measure where the federal government would provide water for irrigation in arid regions throughout the West. The bill was defeated by state’s rights supporters, but, the next year, Newland was back pitching his nationalization of irrigation bill. This time, he received strong support from the new occupant in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt, who had taken office after the September 1901 assassination of President William McKinley. The Reclamation Act passed and the Department of the Interior notified California and Nevada officials that the federal government would be assuming the right to control the water stored in Lake Tahoe behind the dam.

In 1903, the first major effort under the Reclamation Act, the Federal Newlands Reclamation Project, broke ground in western Nevada to divert Truckee River water with the goal of transforming Lahontan Valley desert into farmland. Unfortunately, the engineers who planned the Newlands Irrigation Project overestimated the reliability of the Truckee River water supply. Erratic precipitation and river flows combined with limited upstream storage failed to accommodate periods of drought. And, angry farmers who had been lured to the project rebelled over water shortages during the growing season. Trouble was afoot.

Stay tuned for part two in the next issue.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. Mark may be reached at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com.

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