Water flowing again into Toulon Lake waterfowl habitat

Water flowing again into  Toulon Lake waterfowl habitat

Water flowing again into Toulon Lake waterfowl habitat

As youngsters discovered last week, duck hunting is a long tradition in Pershing County. During Lovelock Cave Days, they observed replicas of the world’s oldest known duck decoys designed and built by Native Americans who hunted ducks on Humboldt Lake more than 2,000 years ago.

According to modern sportsmen, the ancient decoys may have been deployed at what is still one of the best duck hunting spots in Nevada. The topography of Toulon Lake makes it better for ducks and duck hunters than Humboldt Lake, said Ducks Unlimited member Gary Mattice.

When there’s water, that is. Fed primarily by farm runoff from the Upper Lovelock Valley, the runoff must flow for miles through Toulon Drain before it reaches Toulon Lake. The ditch dried up during years of drought and there was

not, until recently, enough water reaching the lake to attract the massive flocks of birds Mattice said he used to see at his favorite duck hunting spot.

Ducks Unlimited and Nevada Waterfowl Association funded a Toulon Drain cleanup a few years ago but dead weeds and other debris have obstructed the flow of water according to Mattice.

“I’m just a hunter trying to get Ducks Unlimited involved to see if they can help us out, get the canal cleaned out and get some water in the Westergard Pond at Toulon,” Mattice said in April. “The canal is choked up from the cemetery all the way into Westergard Pond. I don’t know where the water goes or if it’s being let into the canal up above but it’s not reaching Toulon Lake proper. That’s one of best spots for shore birds, ducks and geese and holds the most feed.”

Last week, water in the drain had increased substantially so the lake could soon be full again.


To be close to his favorite hunting spot, Mattice rents trailer space at the nearby Toulon Mill.

Toulon Mill owner John Heizer confirmed that, when the water is there, Toulon Lake attracts impressive flocks of migratory birds that can sometimes block out the sun. He believes the shallow wetland grows more “nutgrass” for waterfowl than the deeper Humboldt Lakes.

“What the Toulon Lake area needs is a better flow of water brought into it because we can’t maintain any habitat which is the primary source of food for the ducks. It’s the only area where the nut grass grows heavily,” Heizer said. “In other words, there won’t be waterfowl in the Humboldt Sink unless there is nut grass in Toulon Sink.”

Heizer believes Toulon Lake should get more of the water that flowing onto the Humboldt Sink.

“The Humboldt Lake has more than adequate water but Toulon is falling way behind,” he said. “There’s water flowing into the Humboldt Sink. They ought to be able to get some of that water to get into the Toulon Sink. Don’t tell me we need more water rights- we’re wasting water on the Humboldt Sink already.”

Toulon Lake is on the western edge of the Humboldt Wildlife Management Area that’s managed by the Nevada Department of Wildlife. The HWMA was established in the 1950’s primarily for waterfowl hunting along with bird watching, fishing, camping and other outdoor recreation.

“Recreational opportunities pursued by the public include wildlife viewing, photography and camping,” NDOW says of the area. “Efforts are ongoing to improve the primary roads and plans are in place to establish additional boat ramps and camping/picnic areas for public enjoyment.”

NDOW confirmed the HWMA thousands of migratory waterfowl when conditions are right.

“When habitat conditions are favorable, the area can be host to tremendous flocks of waterfowl that are pursued by hunters from across Nevada. Because of the size of the area and relatively light hunting pressure, the area is open to hunting everyday of the hunting season.”

Pershing County native Larry Rackley said he grew up hunting waterfowl at the wildlife area. Hunting has declined over the years as there’s less river water flowing into the county, he said.

“We had Canadian geese, we had snow geese but that’s when it was on the flight line so they all stopped,” he said. “We haven’t had as much water. If we have water for a couple of years, we could get all that back. We had a lot of hunters coming through all the time. That was common.”


This is a good water year so there’s enough for irrigation in the Lovelock Valley. River water not held in storage flows down the Humboldt River and farm runoff flows down the Army Drain into Upper and Lower Humboldt Lakes. Toulon Drain carries farm runoff a much longer distance to Toulon Lake. Some water has reached Toulon Lake but it’s reportedly still 95 percent dry.

Pershing County Water Conservation District Manager Bennie Hodges said Toulon Drain loses water as it runs through the long stretch of dry desert ground. Years of drought dropped the water table, slashed irrigation and farm runoff. There’s water flowing now in the Toulon Drain and the flow should gradually increase as the irrigation season progresses, Hodges said.

“Once we finally came out of the drought last year, the Toulon Drain finally started running,” he said. “The Toulon Drain is only fed by lands in the Upper Valley and it has to go a very, very long way over dry ground, no irrigated land around it. It will take awhile but I think, by the middle or the end of this year, you’re going to see that water back at Toulon Lake.”

When the valley has water, the sinks will have water, Hodges said. “That’s the bottom line.”


NDOW has water rights for the wildlife management area but Lovelock Valley farmers have senior surface water rights that are “first in time, first in right.” In dry years, the crops come first and, during drought, there may be little or no water for those crops, let alone waterfowl.

As a result, maintaining the Toulon Lake wetland has been a challenge for NDOW.

“Flows in the Toulon Drain can be highly variable and are dependent on the amount of irrigation water introduced into the system during the irrigation season,” NDOW says on its website. “Opportunities to intensely manage water inflows are very limited at this time. Options are being explored that would provide at least some level of reliable water in most years.”


In an effort to help NDOW bring back the waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited completed a topographic survey of Toulon Lake showing ditches, drainages, water control structures and levees. DU biologists submitted a proposal for new structures to help stabilize water levels in the wetland.

Norman Saake of the Nevada Waterfowl Association would also like to revive Toulon Lake. He served as NDOW’s Statewide Waterfowl Coordinator and was the agency’s waterfowl biologist for 35 years. Since his retirement in 2001, the Fallon resident has remained active in wetland management issues and he still conducts aerial waterfowl surveys throughout the state.

About thirty years ago, NWA bought 40 acre-feet of water rights for Toulon Lake and donated the water to NDOW. The group is still waiting for that water to be transferred to the marsh.

Saake’s group has a new proposal to help augment the water for Toulon Lake with “minimal impact” on farmers, he said. NWA is willing to cover the cost, estimated at $30,000 to $40,000, and Saake had planned to present the proposal at the next irrigation district meeting in June. At the request of NDOW, that presentation has been delayed, Saake said last week.

The proposed structure would carry surplus irrigation water and farm runoff or “return flow” from the irrigation district’s Harper Canal to the Toulon Drain north of Derby Road, Saake said.

“We going to see if we can put in a structure in the Harper Canal that would allow them to bring water from the Humboldt River during periods of spills and dump that water into the Toulon unit,” he said. “We would be funding construction of the drop structure and the short canal, probably less than a quarter of a mile, from the Harper Canal to the Toulon Drain.”

Saake is open to other ideas the irrigation district may have on delivering more water to Toulon.

“They’re the main stewards of that valuable water resource and we’re trying to get them to use it in the most efficient way they could possibly do it,” he said. “Spilling water in the Humboldt Sink does provide wildlife benefits but the per acre benefits of Toulon are so much greater. We’re trying to work out a way to take some of the water that goes to the Sink and get it into Toulon.”


As of last week, Saake said the flow in Toulon Drain had increased to a level that Toulon Lake could soon be full and ready for the migratory waterfowl season that begins in early September. He was uncertain about the origin of the unexpected surge of water but he was happy to see it.

“Right now, there is a good flow of water going to Toulon and, if it continues, the area will start to recover this year,” Saake said. “I believe it started flowing the first of the week and now is at the capacity of the drain (est. 30 to 35 cfs). If that flow continues for 60 days, Toulon will be full.”

The current flow “would meet all the evaporation needs for Toulon even in the highest evaporation months of June, July and August” and, if the flow is sustained through the summer, there could be good habitat and food at Toulon for migrating birds in the fall, Saake said.

Structures are in place to maintain the water depth needed for wetland habitat, Saake said. If the 2,200 acre lake is too deep for waterfowl to feed, water can be released into the Humboldt Lakes. Upper and Lower Humboldt Lake are also important for migrating waterfowl, he added.

“The Humboldt Lakes do produce excellent waterfowl food crops and hold very impressive numbers of waterfowl even if Toulon Marsh is dry,” Saake said. “It is just that Toulon Marsh is very important in the total waterfowl picture.”

In good water years, there should be enough water for Toulon, Saake said. He’s hoping for an agreement that will help sustain the wetland without impacting Lovelock Valley farmers.

“We’re going to try and work out an agreement that would benefit the wildlife and not be much of a burden on the irrigation district,” he said. “In average water years, whenever there’s water going past Big Five Dam, there should be some water available that could be delivered to Toulon. If they could put it in Harper Canal and send it towards Toulon, the farmers could take whatever they need out of that ditch. When they are not using it, that water would continue to flow through the proposed structure. That would really enhance Toulon.”

Growing food for waterfowl is kind of like growing food for livestock, Saake said.

“In essence, wildlife is actually a crop. We try to grow feed for the birds and that has to take place the same as on a farm, during the summer months,” he said. “If we can’t maintain those units, the amount of food that’s produced is, of course, reduced.”

Heizer hopes to see massive flocks of birds making pit stops again at Toulon Lake.

“When major flights of ducks would come in to Toulon, you could stare into the sun and not see it because the birds were so thick,” he said. “We’d like to see that again, not so much for the hunters but for the wildlife itself. Hunters can go to Safeway, the ducks can’t.”