Flood uncontrol

One of the things that keeps problems from getting solved in Nevada is population turnover. People come here for jobs, move away for other jobs, and sometimes come back. It makes it difficult to develop institutional memory. How many Nevadans, having moved here in the last 20 years, have no memory of the 1996-1997 New Year’s flood?

That undercuts the ability to develop a sense of urgency or to develop consensus. Still, chronic flooding has driven a good deal of flood control work over the past 60 years. The construction of upstream dams, dredging of the river channel, removal of reefs and islands, draining wetlands have all been done. There has been considerable questioning of whether some of these have been in line with science—and whether they have been effective.

Flood control, mostly ignored before 1950, has gotten so much attention and money since then that it is now a permanent agency. There is also permanent funding, paid mostly by workers, naturally. For 17 years, a one-eighth percent sales tax hike has been dedicated to flood control.

No one seems to know how much in local and federal funds have been spent for the purpose, but it is likely in the hundreds of millions over 66 years. It is fair to ask, with so much money put into flood control, for so many decades, why are we so unable to control floods?

In December 1997, D. Brian Burghart wrote a long report on the causes of the New Year’s flood a year earlier: “A News & Review investigation into the causes of the flood reveals that federal policies made the flood much worse for Reno than it could have been. In fact, there may not have been a flood at all if it hadn’t been for government shortsightedness. … The flood of 1997 happened at least in part because of archaic government water policies that favor Lake Tahoe over Reno, and because the Army Corps of Engineers’ chose not to remove debris and sediment that was left in the Truckee as a result of the 1986 flood—thus choking the channel.”

One thing we believe should be done is to remove the post of federal watermaster from the purview of the federal courts. The duties of the post are purely executive agency functions. Court masters traditionally function temporarily as court officers. This one has served the courts for the better part of a century. There may have been a time when the watermaster belonged under the authority of the courts to make sure the court’s water rulings were observed. But that post is too important in the management of the river to stay there. Public accountability does not come from a branch of government that is not elected. The watermaster should be serving under an elected chief executive.

There also should be a more fair source of funding for flood control. The Washoe County legislative delegation should propose a source of funding, such as growth impact fees, that will provide some relief for overburdened sales taxpayers.

Finally, there should be increased communication with the public in plain English terms that explain how much progress is being made from year to year. If the only time Nevadans are reminded to think about flood control is when floods happen, that is one more way accountability is subverted.