Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge

Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge was once home to thousands of migrating birds and northern Paiute Indians. The Stillwater marshes’ were being diverted by twentieth century agriculture, drying them out and threatening wetland life. The water flow stopped about 100 years ago when dams and reservoirs were built to store the river’s water for agricultural uses. The marsh resembles its wet historic past, when tens of thousands of water birds were seasonal or permanent inhabitants, only when precipitation approaches record highs.

In 1990, however, landmark federal legislation was enacted that, for the first time, provides a way for Stillwater NWR to protect and stabilize its wetlands. The legislation allows the refuge to purchase water rights that were attached to the land sold for agricultural use. An environmental impact process is under way in which the refuge will choose the most acceptable plan for purchasing the rights to the water it needs.

The water of the unfettered Carson River used to end up in the Stillwater Marsh as well as in Carson Lake and Carson Sink, all slight depressions in the expansive Carson Desert that is without outlets to the sea. The desert is the bottom of historic glacially created, 300-foot-deep Lake Lahontan. Even though the Carson and five other rivers flowed into the huge lake, excessive evaporation through the millennia eventually turned the lake into desert.

Flowing out of the Sierra Nevada range in California, the Carson River is revived each spring as snow melts in the mountains—the deeper the snow the more water entering the valley. Rejuvenation of the shallow lakes and Stillwater Marsh depended on the river’s flow, their sizes changing constantly as the flow fluctuated.

Stillwater NWR can be found by taking I-80 going east, exit 46, east on US-50 to Fallon; or going west, exit 83, south on US-95 to Fallon; US-50 east approximately 4 miles to left on Stillwater Road (Route 116) to refuge.

For further information, contact:

  • Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge
  • PO. Box 1236
  • Fallon, NV 89407-1236
  • Phone: 702-423-5128
  • website