Over the past century and a quarter, Nevada's public education system has become a critical, and perhaps overlooked, part of our state's economic, social, and cultural fabric. While the Nevada System of Higher Education continues to educate more than 110,000 students each semester and works with our business and community partners to revive and reinvent the state's stalled economy, we are also working hard to save Nevada's treasured natural resources.
Living in a desert, Nevadans know the importance of water. Whether it's increasing rainfall, improving water quality or preserving our fresh water supply, higher education researchers have spent decades working to improve the quality and quantity of our state's water supply.
Walker Lake, located near Hawthorne, is one such precious resource that scientists from the Desert Research Institute and the University of Nevada, Reno are trying to preserve and restore.
The lake is an important natural habitat and is a major economic engine for Mineral County, which estimates nearly 40 percent of its economy comes from lake-related tourism.
For several decades, the Walker River system, the sole source of fresh water for Walker Lake, has been over-appropriated. Since the 1880s, the lake's surface has dropped more than 160 feet. As the levels decline, the lake's alkalinity increases which makes it inhospitable to native wildlife.
Over the past two years, NSHE scientists have worked with community, industry and environmental groups to find a solution to this challenging problem. As researchers, higher education's mission was simple, but not easy: Find a way to increase the amount of water delivered to Walker Lake while maintaining the basin's economy and ecosystem.
This week marks the culmination of that work.
Running Oct. 26-29, the International Symposium on Terminus Lakes will meet at the Joe Crowley Student Union on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno to share the findings of that research.
The symposium will feature the research of more than 200 scientists and 10 concurrent projects that examined Walker Lake and its future. In addition, researchers will release an 1,100-page report which unveils in detail what will be needed to preserve Walker Lake and its critical environmental, economic and agricultural systems.
Scientists from DRI and UNR worked cooperatively on this project to produce the best science and information possible for the people living throughout the Walker Basin. It has been a team effort in the most complete sense, with an emphasis on sharing information and technology among the different teams and avoiding duplication of research efforts.
The Walker research is not only significant to the Walker Basin, but, as this international symposium demonstrates, also to the global study of climate change. Walker Lake, like Pyramid Lake, is a terminus lake - one that water flows into, but which has no outlet.
Wallace S. Broecker, a renowned geochemist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and keynote speaker at the symposium, believes that terminus, or closed-basin, lakes are critical to global change research due to their ability to predict the future of water availability worldwide. Typically located in arid or semi-arid regions, terminus lakes make up about 50 percent of the world's lakes.
"These unique terminus lakes, and their associated watershed ecosystems, are in extreme peril," said Jim Thomas, co-chair for the Walker Basin Project Study Group and director of DRI's Center for Watersheds and Environmental Sustainability. "The lakes may soon dry up completely or become shallow saline water bodies."
According to Thomas, as the planet warms, stream flows will likely decrease and lakes in arid environments will face further stress caused by reduced water resources as evaporation rates, natural vegetation and diversions of water for other uses increase. While not all terminus lakes are under stress, the watershed model for the Walker Basin project provides a blueprint for a sound scientific approach to understanding the hydrology of terminus lake basins, no matter their location or climate. The information can be used by water-use planners and irrigation districts to plan for future water availability. The research pioneered in the Walker Basin project has produced its first funded spinoff, a grant from the prestigious National Science Foundation to create a national center for hydrologic sensing and measurement.
Agriculture and recreation are prominent industries in the Walker Basin, and both rely on water. Because of this, the Walker Basin Project included an economic impact study focused on the potential economic impact and alternatives if water rights are purchased to sustain Walker Lake. "An integrated approach was needed because of the complex nature of these ecosystems," Thomas said. "That includes economics, water use, and alternative agriculture in addition to the hydrology and water chemistry of the system to be able to restore these types of ecosystems while maintaining a strong economy within the watershed."
Richard Bartholet, UNR's director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said change will occur with global warming. "Helping the community to understand the economic and fiscal impact to the region, including options for mitigating these impacts, is a critical element to the eventual implementation of solutions," he said.
Over the past two years, I have participated in countless meetings with scientists, ranchers, farmers, environmentalists and local residents as we worked to preserve this amazing natural resource. During that time, I have gained an even deeper appreciation for just how important Walker Lake is to the Hawthorne community and the state. In addition, I have met and talked with ranchers and farmers whose families have lived in the Walker River Basin for generations, many since the birth of our state. We have worked hard to produce sound research that balances the complex, competing interests within the Basin.
Walker Lake is just one of many examples of how Nevada's public higher education system is making a positive difference in our state's quality of life and our economic health. We are not just about educating students in the classroom. We are active community members and partners striving to make Nevada a place we're proud to call home.
These fundamental truths are no less true nor less important today and must guide our every policy decision. In a very real sense, our future hinges on our ability to fully include all in the promise and opportunity of building a better life and a new Nevada through education.