Nevada population boom made flood from century-old canal worse

FERNLEY - In 1903, when a 31-mile canal was dug to move water from the Truckee River to the melon and alfalfa fields around Fallon, earthen embankments made a lot of sense.

The dirt canal construction was cheaper than lining the entire route with concrete, and no one in Northern Nevada much minded if it and other canals like it in the Newlands Reclamation Project occasionally failed. Floodwaters would flow into pastures and surrounding desert and soak back into the water table.

Today, what once was the rural agricultural town of Fernley is now a growing bedroom community of about 20,000 residents that has been declared a disaster area after storm-swollen water tore a hole in the 50-foot-wide and 9-foot-deep canal and inundated hundreds of homes.

"The vast majority are new homes," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who toured the area by helicopter after the flood. "This certainly is not comparable to Katrina, but it's an event we'll remember in Nevada. We have so little water."

As cleanup operations continued, Gov. Jim Gibbons put initial damage estimates at $4 million and growing. The site was declared a disaster area by state and federal officials.

The Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, which operates the aging canal under a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, has been slapped with two lawsuits and more lawsuits are expected over its failure.

Both the irrigation district and Bureau of Reclamation are unsure what caused the earthen berms to give way as Northern Nevada was lashed with a powerful winter storm. An investigation continues into the cause.

Engineers were working to fortify the dirt and rock walls to make it stronger but a long-term solution would be costly.

"The canal is 100-plus years old. It has been a concern and will continue to be somewhat of a concern as long as population keeps building on its banks," said Ernie Schank, president of the irrigation district.

"It would be wonderful if there could be more reinforcement done through the Fernley area ... but that is going to cost millions and millions of dollars," he said.

Lining the canal with cement - probably the safest alternative - would cost "hundreds of millions, if not billions," Schank said.

There are hundreds of miles of ditches and canals in Nevada. The irrigation district manages more than 370 miles of canals within its boundaries, including the Truckee Canal, which is among the state's largest.

While Fernley averages only 5 inches of precipitation a year, floods are nothing new to the area since the construction of the canals.

Schank said he's aware of at least six past breaks of this particular canal. At least three occurred before 1926 when the federal government operated the canal, and three have taken place since, he said.

"Historically, this canal and others have flooded but the fundamental difference is nobody has lived by the canal," said Guy Rocha, the state archivist and respected Nevada historian who described the flood as "the worst catastrophic event in the history of Fernley."

"This city has grown so fast. It's not pasture anymore. It's not horses or cattle. It's a residential area with literally thousands of people," he said.

Just 30 miles east of Reno along Interstate 80, Fernley is home to Amazon.com's Western regional distribution center with more than 700 employees, the large printing company Quebecor, two golf courses and casinos.

It's a far cry from the days when agriculture dominated and Mary and Moe's WigWam Restaurant was the biggest name in town.

In 1960, Fernley's population stood at 654, and the community didn't get it's first stop light until about 20 years ago, Rocha said.

"If this flood would have happened more than 20 years ago, you would not have had this kind of impact," Rocha said. "But with the completion of Interstate 80 in the 1950s and as people look for more affordable housing, the population has just exploded, doubling just about every decade."

The cold water that poured out of the breached canal last weekend comes from the Truckee River, which originates in Lake Tahoe. The natural river runs down the rugged canyon in the Sierra Nevada, through Reno along I-80 before it turns sharply to the north and empties into Pyramid Lake - a trip of about 100 miles.

About 15 miles east of Reno the Derby Dam diverts some of the water into the Truckee Canal, which carries it to Fernley and further south for another 20 miles to the Lahontan Valley Reservoir east of Fallon.

The canal is a key component of the nation's first federal reclamation project, started in 1903 and named after U.S. Sen. Francis Newlands as part of an effort to "Make the Desert Bloom."

During a normal water year, the irrigation district delivers water to about 2,500 users and delivers 215,000 acre feet of water primarily for agricultural use. (An acre foot is the volume necessary to cover an acre of land in one foot of water. One acre-foot equals 43,560 cubic feet or 325,851 gallons, an amount that meets the annual water needs of one to two U.S. households.)

The water would have been a welcome relief in the mid-1800s to the ill-fated Donner Party and thousands of other pioneers in covered wagons, whose ruts are still etched in the desert several miles north of the flood area.

Many settlers' diaries note the struggles to man and beast in crossing the Forty-Mile Desert around Fernley, which was regarded as one of the most difficult stretches of the entire California Trail because of its lack of water.

More than century and a half later, much of that sagebrush-covered landscape has changed little, except now those encroaching on the desert aren't pioneers but housing tracts around towns like Fernley, Dayton and Gardnerville.

Few of the flood victims in the arid region had flood insurance, one of the reasons President Bush declared Lyon County a national disaster area, a move that makes federal funding and low-interest loans available to residents and business owners.

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