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Digging a Tunnel from Washoe Valley To Tahoe

A dam at the north end of the valley, at the head of Pagni Canyon, rising 50 feet and 248 feet long would create a “Lake Washoe” filling Washoe Valley with water from a massive pipe tunneled through the Carson Range into Lake Tahoe. The outlet would be at Franktown Creek and the fall of water would power a large Hydropower plant. Excess water would be transported to the Carson River Canyon east of Carson City via a canal for storage and irrigation behind a new dam there.

All this was seriously considered in 1953 by state and federal engineers to solve Western Nevada’s water and power crisis. Writer Basil Woon of the Nevada State Journal chronicled the promise and controversy of the project in a series of articles for the paper.

The tunnel was part of a massive regional project to also tame the tempermental Truckee by channelizing the river between it’s outlet at Tahoe City and Donner Lake. Prosser Dam would also be raised and other improvements would be made east of Sparks along with a power plant there.

The fear in 1953, with a Reno population at 32,000, was that western Nevada’s growth would soon be stalled by a lack of critical resources. It was predicted that by the year 2000 the Reno population would be 70,000 and that current water resources would be woefully inadequate requiring severe rationing. A lack of electrical power would prohibit industrial and commercial development. As it turned out, the population was 226,000 in 2010 and growing. The Reno/Sparks Metro area was 425,000 in 2010. They grossly overestimated the need and underestimated the growth! Apparently the water engineers in the interim have done a great job providing us with adequate water supplies.

This was a time of great infrastructure development in the American West. The Bureau of Reclamation became a huge bureaucracy bestowing upon western towns and rural residents the promise of prosperity with the development of water projects for irrigation and electric power.  Hundreds of dams, canals and power plants were built throughout the west. Nearly every area was examined for it’s development potential.

Back in Washoe Valley, Woon chronicled the local reaction to the plan and the potential changes to the lush valley of pastoral ranches. Locals were terrified that their lifestyles and livelihoods would be destroyed and our historical legacy lost. Residents quickly organized and met with the engineers.

As usual in our society, there were nearly as many for the proposal as those against. The threat to Bower’s Mansion came up, now a popular park. The engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation office in Carson City, H. A. Hunt, assured the residents the resource would be spared, presumably by a dike. The Winters Mansion on the north end, some saying it was an even more important landmark, pre-dating Bowers, was another matter. The engineer thought the waters would be “mighty close”. Washoe City would be abandoned and inundated. This fate engulfed several towns and historic sites larger in the west.

Local residents, artists, ranchers, dude ranch owners, gentleman ranchers and families with many generations of history stood to lose everything. Dr. T. S. Clarke, prominent Reno eye doctor and vigorous opponent, stated, “It would ruin our place and nullify all the work and expense we have gone to; the fields and farm would go and we would be left with nothing but a house on a lake.” Even in 1953 a working farm was considered by practical minds more attractive than a lake house, apparently. Proponents envisioned public beaches and a resort hotel in addition to plentiful power. In the end, the tunnel project was shelved. Maybe it was the public resistance, the historical significance or there were plenty of other potential projects to pursue.

Nearly all the other proposals also fell by the wayside except the channeling of the Truckee through Reno and Sparks and the building of Stampede Reservoir. This, added with Prosser and Boca were to supply a power plant in Verdi which was never built.

Now, with our massive population and the recruitment of major industry along with having squeezed nearly every drop out of every other water resource, will the Tahoe Tunnel and Lake Washoe proposal return to wet the imagination of planners?

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