ELKO — Willow Creek Reservoir drained completely as of Nov. 21 with a total loss of the reservoir storage and associated warm-water fishery, the Nevada Department of Wildlife reported Wednesday.
Gate actuators and valves on the dam gate broke and stuck open, resulting in rapid reservoir drawdown and no repair options available without complete draining of the reservoir to access broken equipment.
Employees of Barrick Gold Corp., owner of Willow Creek Reservoir and the surrounding land about 75 miles northwest of Elko, contacted NDOW fisheries personnel and informed them of the malfunction and decreasing water levels in mid-November.
“In early November, during routine maintenance on the dam, there was a mechanical malfunction,” wrote Leslie Maple, Barrick communications and corporate affairs manager, in an email. “An actuator and valve on the gate broke causing the gate to be stuck open.”
NDOW fisheries personnel were unable to salvage game fish because of the wet weather this past week and unfavorable shoreline conditions associated with dropping water levels.
“Barrick attempted to fix the broken valve but the equipment could not be accessed for repair without full drainage of the reservoir,” Maple wrote. “Barrick reported the issue to NDOW on November 9, with hopes of being able to salvage the fishery. Wet weather and unfavorable shoreline conditions limited vehicle access to the reservoir and the salvage operation was unsuccessful.”
Willow Creek Reservoir was constructed in 1884, reconstructed in 1921, and restored twice — in 1999 and 2005 — and repaired in 2007, according to NDOW. Maximum total capacity is 640 surface acres at a depth of up to 40 feet.
The last state water resources department inspection of Willow Creek was in 2014, said JoAnn Kittrell, public information manager for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, when the dam earned a “fair” rating on a scale of “poor,” “fair” and “satisfactory.” Barrick has since performed annual inspections and is up to date on its emergency action plan, Kittrell said.
The reservoir is used as an agricultural irrigation impoundment, primarily for ranch and livestock use, and had become a popular recreation destination for Elko, Humboldt and Lander county residents. Known for good catch rates and quality size white crappie, the fishery was rebounding nicely from the extended drought of 2012-2015, according to NDOW.
Restocking efforts of white crappie, channel catfish and black bass species had occurred, and the popularity of the fishery became prominent in the summer of 2017, with noticeable increases in angling and camping presence throughout the summer and fall.
Beginning in spring 2018, in coordination with Barrick, NDOW will begin the rebuilding and restocking efforts of Willow Creek Reservoir if habitat conditions and equipment infrastructure allow. It is estimated that it will take three to five years under ideal conditions to return warm-water game fish populations to sustainable levels.
“Barrick is eager to see the ranch reservoir restored for community use,” said Nigel Bain, executive director of Barrick U.S.A. “We will continue to coordinate with NDOW to repair the failed valve and restock the fishery as soon as infrastructure and weather conditions permit.”