RENO (AP) — A federal agency and a Nevada water conservation district have agreed to re-evaluate preliminary plans to turn part of a 140-year-old irrigation ditch in Reno into a water pipeline after environmentalists and local residents objected.
The Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service and the district announced last week they have formally terminated the initial phase of an environmental review of the flood- control project, which includes replacing a 14-mile (22-kilometer) stretch of the Steamboat Canal with an enclosed pipeline.
Critics say the changes will turn open, green space into a gravel road over a pipe. They say it could harm fish, wildlife and countless recreationists who use the natural riparian area for hiking, biking, bird-watching and photography.
The Washoe County Water Conservation District presented the plans to the government last year on behalf of the Steamboat Canal and Irrigation Co. They are intended to improve the efficiency of water deliveries, slow erosion and provide flood protection.
Jose Rosado, state conservation engineer for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Reno, said the agency decided to halt its initial review of the project before moving into the formal planning process under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"We want to make sure we approach the planning process with a clear purpose and need for the project and reasonable alternatives that will help guide conservation with stakeholder and public as part of the NEPA process," he said in an email to The Associated Press.
Built in 1880, the ditch stretches 34 miles from the Truckee River east of Reno near the California-Nevada line to south of downtown. It delivers water to about 500 property owners with water rights across 1,600 acres.
Katy Christensen, chairwoman of the executive committee for the Sierra Club's Great Basin Group, said the narrow service road along the corridor is "one of the largest recreation resources in the Truckee Meadows."
"Even though it's not a public easement, the reality is that it's viewed as a public recreation pathway and has been for decades," she wrote in formal comments last month. "It's also a well-established wildlife corridor that allows animals to move safely between natural drainages."
"Changes to the system should be considered in this context and not just an irrigation ditch in which to install pipe for more efficient water conveyance. Those that benefit from the conveyance of water to their properties need to realize that their benefit has given rise to a larger community benefit," she said.
The service said in a statement Thursday it intends to "re-evaluate the feasibility, scope and extent of the project, as well as the effectiveness of the proposed project to meet conservation criteria." It also wants to identify the level of technical services necessary to complete the project.
The Reno Gazette Journal reported more than 1,500 emails and 150 voicemails were submitted in opposition in January.
Rosado said he didn't know how many comments were received, but acknowledged they played a role in halting the planning process. He said the next step will be to complete a "preliminary investigation and feasibility report."
"This is an internal document that is developed to make sure we have all the information needed, like Purpose and Need and preliminary alternatives, before moving to the planning and NEPA process," he said in the email to AP.
The original timeline called for the environmental documentation to be prepared from late 2020 through fall 2022. The project was supposed to be designed by spring 2023 with construction running from spring 2023 to spring 2025.
"At this time there are no specifics of when exactly this will be started or how long it will take," Rosado said.