Lake Tahoe Water Wars--Part 1 of 2

Sometime in late June or early July, more gates of the Truckee River dam are slowly opened without any announcement by anyone. With more gates open, the flow in the river quietly increases. What's going on?

Quite simple: Lake Tahoe is operated as a reservoir for irrigation storage and municipal water use in Nevada. Together with a handful of other public and privately owned reservoirs in the Truckee River system, Lake Tahoe provides about 75 percent of the water supply for the rapidly growing Reno-Sparks area.

Canal to Auburn
On August 18, 1864, the Lake Bigler Canal Company was formed with the grand idea of transporting Tahoe water over the Sierra Nevada to help expand the economy in Northern California. The company's stated purpose was "to supply the people of Placer County with water for mining, irrigating, and manufacturing purposes." (From 1854 to 1945 Lake Tahoe was officially named Lake Bigler after California's third governor.)

The Canal Company failed to implement its plan, but it was only one in a series of bold schemes to divert water from the Truckee River system.

Aqueduct to San Francisco
In the 1860s, a San Francisco-based engineer, Colonel Alexis Waldemar von Schmidt, acquired a half-section of land surrounding the Truckee River outlet in Tahoe City and the right to appropriate 500 cubic feet per second of lake water. It was a subtle and inauspicious beginning to what Von Schmidt was intent on engineering, namely, nothing less than the "Grandest Aqueduct in the World."

The Prussian-born Von Schmidt exuded optimism, confidence, and a driving energy that enabled him to succeed at projects others considered impossible to do. He had arrived in San Francisco in 1849, but somehow resisted the impulse to join the gold rush. Recognizing that "water flows uphill to money" and that the limited fresh water supply threatened to curtail the growth of San Francisco, Von Schmidt helped incorporate the Bensley Water Company.

The company successfully built San Francisco's first water supply system in the late 1850's. Von Schmidt became angry when Bensley did not pay him for the rights to use a water meter he invented, so he retaliated by joining the rival Spring Valley Water Company in 1860. Five years later, Spring Valley bought out Bensley and established a profitable monopoly as the principal water purveyor to San Francisco.

Pipes to Virginia City
Von Schmidt had even bigger goals. In 1863 he had submitted an ambitious plan to the Board of Aldermen in Virginia City, Nevada. Von Schmidt explained to the city's leaders how Tahoe water could be piped over Spooner Summit (Highway 50) down to Carson City, through the Washoe Basin, and then up to a reservoir on Mt. 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. However, the idea of bypassing the Truckee River altogether and siphoning off Lake Tahoe water directly has refused to die quietly. As recently as 1952, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed tapping Tahoe water by building a tunnel through the Carson Range on the Nevada side and storing water in Washoe Lake.

Tunnel from Palisades Tahoe
Undeterred, the enterprising engineer hatched a new, more outlandish scheme. In 1865, Von Schmidt and five other investors established the Lake Tahoe and San Francisco Water Works Company to export the water of Lake Tahoe to the Bay Area, a distance of 163 miles. First among its articles of incorporation; "To take the waters of Lake Tahoe at or near its outlet, known as the Truckee River, and conducting the same through suitable canals, tunnels, flumes and pipes, to the City of San Francisco."

The plan required a diversion dam to be built about four miles downstream of the lake outlet. There a canal would branch off from the river and flow into Palisades Tahoe. A five-mile tunnel bored northwest through the mountains would carry the water to the American River watershed near Soda Springs. 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.

To fund the project Von Schmidt wanted San Francisco to issue $10 million in bonds, and he petitioned the U.S. Congress for a generous right-of-way package, which included large checkerboard land grants as well as any inherent timber and stone resources. Newspapers were initially exuberant at the prospect; the Daily Morning Call in San Francisco declared the project "decidedly the most stupendous water works enterprise ever undertaken on the American continent."

Nevada residents and politicians were hardly thrilled at the thought of a private company diverting and exporting water from the Truckee River to San Francisco. Wasting no time, Nevada Attorney General, George A. Nourse, challenged Von Schmidt to prove his legal entitlement to Tahoe water. He claimed that Nevada's agriculture and mining industries were completely dependent on the Truckee River and that they held preeminent water rights through established usage.

Von Schmidt assured Nourse that Nevada had nothing to fear. He said the six foot dam he planned to erect at the Lake Tahoe outlet would store enough water to supply both states. He also argued that California had a superior water claim to Tahoe because two-thirds of the lake and its outlet in Tahoe City were within the California border. In response, editor Joe Goodman of Virginia City's Territorial Enterprise advised Von Schmidt to "bring to the mountains an escort of twenty regiments of militia" should the water diversion proposal succeed. "They will need them all," Goodman warned, "for we will not submit to the proposed robbery."

When Von Schmidt's proposal was submitted to legislators in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., it ran into strong resistance. Opponents argued that the federal government had no business subsidizing private corporations by giving away public lands. Similar arguments were made regarding the generous government contracts issued for the construction of the first transcontinental railroad across northern California and Nevada.

Citizen groups and newspaper editorials complained that, like other projects under consideration that year, the proposed Palisades Tahoe canal and tunnel reeked of corruption. State and federal legislators killed the legislation.

In the late 1800s the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation assumed control over the Truckee River system and rebuilt the dam at Tahoe City to supply water for farming in the Nevada desert. More water wars were to follow. See Part 2 of 2 next week.

Editor's Note: Mark McLaughlin is a Tahoe Historian who can be reached at The photo is by Mark. 

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