Steps Towards a Solution for Martis Creek Dam


map of Truckee River watershed

Map of Truckee River watershed | U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers/American Rivers

The Army Corps of Engineers considers Martis Creek Dam, located near Lake Tahoe on a tributary to the Truckee River, one of the top 6 highest risk Corps dams in the nation. It is classified in the Corps’ most severe risk category, requiring “urgent and compelling” action to reduce the probability and consequences of failure.

Martis Creek Dam is considered high risk due to three main problems contributing to the probability of failure: the dam foundation appears to be eroding and renders the dam unable to hold water, there is a 200 foot-wide active fault line between the dam and its spillway capable of producing an earthquake of magnitude 7 or greater, and the dam’s spillway is too small to accommodate likely floods. This creates concern because 72,000 residents live within the inundation zone of “failed” Martis Creek Dam in the downstream metropolitan area of Reno, NV and if the dam failed while full it would send a flood pulse to Reno that is 20 times larger than any previous flood on the Truckee River.

Polaris Fault in relation to the Martis Creek Dam

Polaris Fault in relation to the Martis Creek Dam | U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers

As a result of Martis Creek Dam’s high risk designation, the Army Corps initiated a study process to select a permanent solution to eliminate this public safety risk. The Corps’ current alternatives range from dam modification, to reconstruction to full dam removal. The Corps can enlarge the spillway, but it has not yet identified strategies that are sure to address the ongoing threats of foundation seepage/erosion and earthquakes.

If the dam could not be made safe, removal would be required.  Removing the dam would increase the risk of flooding in Reno by approximately 10%, but would also allow restoration of Martis Valley’s meadow and stream, including creation of habitat for threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout.

American Rivers has connected with local organizations Sierra Watch and Truckee River Watershed Council, in a partnership called the Martis Creek Dam Solutions Initiative, to assist in the Corps decision making process and to ensure that the best possible solution for Martis Creek Dam and the entire Truckee River watershed is reached. American Rivers and its partners are working to engage and inform community members, as well as coordinating with the Army Corps and other local stakeholders in this process. American Rivers is also providing technical expertise to assist in the review and verification of the many complex studies underway on issues related to the dam.

The Solutions Initiative will be holding a public meeting about the future of Martis Creek Dam in October in Truckee, CA.  For more information about the project and how to get involved visit the Martis Creek Dam Solutions Initiative website.

Martis Creek Dam Solutions Initiative

Martis Creek Dam Solutions Initiative | Julie Fair