RENO - Water resumed flowing in a century-old irrigation canal Friday for the first time since a breach in January flooded hundreds of homes in a rural Nevada town.
The Truckee-Carson Irrigation District opened the gates at noon to the 32-mile canal that takes water from the Truckee River to farmers in the Fallon area, about 60 miles east of Reno.
"It's another milestone," U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeffrey McCracken said a day after a federal report blamed burrowing rodents for the canal failure.
Water burst through a 50-foot breach in the weakened structure on Jan. 5, and more than 500 homes were damaged by floodwater in Fernley. The town of 20,000 residents about 30 miles east of Reno was declared a federal and state disaster area.
The bureau authorized the irrigation district to initially restrict flows to 150 cubic feet per second, about one-fifth of the maximum level. The district must reach that initial flow through daily increases of 50 cubic feet per second through Sunday.
The bureau owns the canal and the irrigation district leases and maintains it.
Some Fernley residents criticized the decision to let water flow again, saying it showed water managers at the bureau and district were more interested in delivering water to Fallon-area farmers than the safety of residents.
Chip Hansen, who has yet to move back into his flooded-damaged home, called the action premature.
"It seems to me it's about power and control," Hansen said to a Reno newspaper. "We know there are areas on the (canal) that are not up to par. Here we go again."
The irrigation district must take steps including updating its maintenance plan and standard operating procedures before the canal flow can be increased to 250 cubic feet per second, about one-third of the maximum level.
Before flows above that can be reached, the irrigation distruct must implement a plan to deal with rodents such as muskrats, beavers and gophers.
"They have to walk the canal and anywhere there's rodent activity more than four feet into the embankment they have to fill it," McCracken said. "Our goal is to ensure that any (flow) increase is a safe increase."
Returning the canal to full capacity will require work that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.
The water flow at the time of the breach was at or near the allowable level of 750 cubic feet per second.
Nearly two inches of rain fell the day before, in an area that averages only about five inches of precipitation a year.