Snow in the Sierra Nevada this week is adding more woes for the communities that border the Carson River.
Moderate to heavy snowfall has added to the snowpack in the Sierra, and the National Weather Service in Reno warned this week flooding may affect the area downriver from the Lahontan Dam because of the water release. Areas that could experience flooding include Bafford Lane and other low-lying areas.
Churchill County residents are being warned that flooding may be more of a problem this spring than six years ago after government officials held a town hall meeting last week at the Rafter 3C Arena.
What was billed as the 100-year flood in 2017 is making an ugly return to western Nevada as one of the deepest snowpacks in decades contains an amount of water exceeding 1 million acre-feet.
That poses a definite problem for the county this spring considering Lahontan Reservoir holds a maximum 319,000 acre-feet when gates are placed at the dam. An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons of water and would cover a football field with water one-foot deep. County Manager Jim Barbee said although similarities between 2017 and this year exist, the differences are just as great.
Since the drawdown of water from the Lahontan Reservoir began two weeks ago, the lake level has dropped from 149,000 acre-feet to 136,362 acre-feet. The Carson River is also running at slightly under 1,200 cubic feet per second at Fort Churchill.
Caleb Cage is the incident commander for Churchill County’s mitigation efforts on managing flooding threats. Cage said Churchill County has had an amazing response so far in planning for any flooding.
“In 2017, we had two back-to-back floods in January and February,” Cage said of the situation in western Nevada.
Cage said two emergency declarations were declared, and the Sierra Nevada experienced intense snowfall followed by a warm spring. Within a five-day period, he said Lahontan Reservoir added 90,000 acre-feet of water. Cage also said the percentage of water in the Sierra Nevada snowpack was 250% to 300% of normal.
“At that time, the Lahontan Reservoir emptied twice before September,” he said.
Cage said the response from local government agencies was immediate in 2017 with the availability of sandbags, the clearing of Carson River debris, the installation of culverts under U.S. Highways 95 and 50, construction of berms on Pasture Road and installing a weir and spillway on the V-line canal to send water into the desert toward culverts that were installed under the Schurz Highway south of Dodge Lane.
One of the biggest feats of flood mitigation was the construction of the 17-mile “Big Dig” that transported water from Carson Lake to the Stillwater Wildlife Refuge northeast of Fallon.
Cage said 2023 has been different, especially with lessons learned from 2017. Both the city and county have declared regency declarations, and Cage said Gov. Joe Lombardo has declared emergencies for most of Nevada’s counties.
“We have 1.1 million acre-feet of water in the Sierra,” Cage said.
What concerns officials is the colder-than-normal temperatures which will shorten the timeframe for snowmelt. Cage said the snow in the Sierra Nevada is staying in place, and depending on temperatures for the rest of the month and in April, either the snowmelt will be gradual or flow quicker than normal.
Cage said the key takeaways are to prepare for possible flooding now; for the Truckee Carson Irrigation District and the Bureau of Reclamation to monitor the river and the canal system water levels; and for the public to say informed, to be prepared and to have a plan.
Jack Worsley, area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation in Carson City, remembers the flooding from 2017. He reiterated the importance of watching the weather and flood predictions for the spring and said an aerial assessment of the snowpack in California also indicates 1.1 million acre-feet of snow above 5,000 feet in elevation.
In comparing 2017 and 2023, he said the lakes and reservoirs were bone dry in 2017 after four years of drought, whereas the current water levels in area reservoirs and lakes are more noticeable. When the warmer weather arrives, Worley said there will be concerns.
“Our goal is to control the flow of water below the (Lahontan) dam,” he said.
Churchill County Commission Chairman Bus Scharmann said the county is looking at building another weir on the V-line canal near the one that was installed in 2017. With the amount of water predicted to fill the Carson River and Lahontan Reservoir, he said doubling the flow of water from the canal to the desert will help mitigate flooding along the river and canals.
Likewise, Fallon Mayor Ken Tedford said this is a different time than six years ago because of the water content.
“Not too much is coming because of the weather,” he said.
Tedford said his concern, which was repeated by the other speakers, is controlling the flow of water along the Carson River.
“TCID, the county, Bureau of Reclamation are doing a great job,” Tedford said. “Everything that needs to be done is being done.”
Other areas of concerns from the meeting included:
• Controlling the water flow in the Carson River downstream from Lahontan Dam. Uncontrolled flows and/or flooding will present more risks, especially for the city.
• TCID is primed to do water deliveries, but because of the excessive water and ground saturation, the agency is unable to do so.
• TCID is spreading the water to both righted and non-righted land users.
• The county construction of a new weir on the V-Line will be bigger than the current weir.
• Completion of an additional weir is based on the availability of material and construction workers.
• Every effort will be made to keep water from flooding residences downriver from the dam.
• Residents who are concerned with flooding are advised to walk around their property, construct berms if possible, and place sandbags at vulnerable points.
• Sandbags may be picked up from 485 Miners Road at the following times: Monday through Friday: 10 a.m. to noon and again from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. For seniors and residents with mobility issues who live on the Carson River, sandbag delivery is available by calling the call center at 775-867-5923.
• The water call center telephone number is 775-867-5923, and it will be staffed weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
City of Fallon: www.fallonnevada.gov
Churchill County: www.churchillcountynv.gov
Truckee River Operating Agreement (water reports): www.troa.net
Lahontan Valley News: nevadaappeal.com