Is Reno ready for El Niño?

We've seen the closed roads and the floods. Maybe we learned our lesson.

The 1996-1997 flood scene here is of the intersection of the Truckee River with Sierra Street. The round fence shown enclosed an ice rink that was located where the downtown movie theatres now stand.

The 1996-1997 flood scene here is of the intersection of the Truckee River with Sierra Street. The round fence shown enclosed an ice rink that was located where the downtown movie theatres now stand.

El Niño is coming. And this year’s event looks to be particularly strong. For long-time residents of Reno and Lake Tahoe, the idea of a strong El Niño weather pattern evokes memories of two previous significant El Niño winters, 1982-83 and 1997-98. El Niño, for the uninitiated, is a weather pattern that includes warmer-than-average temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. It tends to bring moisture to the Americas. While it comes around every six or seven years, some years it has a greater effect than others. This winter’s is predicted to be especially large.

Die-hard skiers and snowboarders are no doubt hoping that this year will mirror the epic snowstorms of 1982-83, where snow totals for single storms often exceeded six feet, and a cascade of them resulted in seasonal snow totals of over 50 feet in parts of the Sierra. Many will also remember, however, road closures over the passes and schools closed for days as the ever-increasing piles of snow created havoc with infrastructure–there were widespread power outages, Tahoe roofs were collapsing under tons of wet Sierra cement, and streets and highways became virtual tunnels, flanked by 20-foot snow banks.

Long-time Renoites may also remember the New Years’ Flood of 1997, when the Truckee River inundated huge swaths of downtown Reno, the Sparks industrial area, and the airport. Many newer Reno-Sparks residents might not realize that the Sparks Marina was created overnight, inadvertently, when the floodwaters of the North Truckee Drain entered what was then the Helms Gravel Pit. The island of Wingfield Park disappeared under the muddy waters of the Truckee and debris piled around the arched supports of the Virginia Street Bridge, creating a dam of logs and flotsam that exacerbated the flooding. Property damages in Reno and Sparks were estimated to exceed $500 million.

While our region desperately needs a steady procession of wet winter storms to build the snowpack and refill the bone dry Truckee River, the question remains: Is the Truckee Meadows ready to withstand another major El Niño year?

The need for snow

Reno and the Sierra desperately need an above average snowpack and heavy precipitation to replenish depleted water supplies. Skiers are also hoping for an epic snow year at local resorts like Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe.

“It always snows in winter,” said Mike Pierce, director of marketing for Mt. Rose. “The doom and gloom out there that winter will never come back is not a realistic theory.” With the region’s highest base elevation, Mt. Rose is perfectly placed for a potentially warmer, wetter winter. “Our stats on El Niños in the past, they’re strong,” said Pierce. “It typically means more moisture. With more moisture, you get more snow. Yes there’s a chance those storms might come in a little warmer. That’s where our altitude advantage comes into play.”

Sierra resorts first used snowmaking to augment natural snow, but the technology that keeps Mt. Rose ready for skiers has improved greatly over the decades.

“The biggest difference is now we can open on snowmaking just by itself,” said Pierce. “If we can get a base down early, it really helps when the snow comes.”

Mt. Rose has added nine new fixed-position snowmakers for this season in key spots, including at the base of the Slide Bowl. And the new snowmaking guns have the latest in fully automated, high-efficiency technology, turning on and off according to temperature conditions to take advantage of every window of snowmaking opportunity.

While everyone hopes for snow on the slopes, it creates havoc on the roads. The local fleet of snowplows has an arsenal of new tools to make our winter roads safer. You may notice a series of faint white streaks on roads a day or two before a storm. This is salt brine that has been sprayed on the asphalt.

“That’s been a huge change for us,” said Ron Korman, public works manager for the city of Sparks. “It greatly reduces the amount of time it takes to break the ice up when it does get packed onto the roads.” The brine is also used to “pre-wet” salt as it is pushed through the spreader chute on the plows. The wet salt burrows its way into packed ice. While dry salt will sit on an icy road for an average of 17 minutes before it gets pushed into the gutter, the pre-wetted material will sit on the road for well over half an hour, meaning that it will continue melting ice more effectively, and for two-to-three times longer. This efficiency is key, as there are nearly 5,000 miles of roads to be plowed in the Truckee Meadows after a major storm.

Lessons learned

After the 1997 flood, the cities of Reno and Sparks, and Washoe County joined forces to improve planning and response times for floods, fires and other disasters. The interagency coordination took on even greater urgency after the September 11 attacks in 2001. This cooperation is crucial for a metropolitan area of this size, particularly one split into multiple municipalities and jurisdictions.

“If there’s one good thing that came out of that 1997 flood,” said Aaron Kenneston, Washoe County Emergency Manager, “the two cities and the county wrote and signed an inter-local agreement that says anytime there is a major disaster, we will work together in a unified command, and we’ll all pitch in in the interest of public safety.”


Photo/Michelle Matus

Today, Washoe County, the city of Reno, and the city of Sparks (along with over 40 other agencies including the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the airport, volunteers, and the private sector) operate under joint inter-local agreements, and, more importantly, conduct joint training exercises.

The flood of 1997, as well as the major snowstorm of 2005, and the Reno Air Races crash, helped create a “culture of collaboration when it comes to disasters and emergencies,” said Kenneston, a retired Army National Guard colonel.

Washoe County’s 800 MHz Joint Operations Committee ensured that all critical responders such as police, fire, city management, public works, and even volunteer organizations, can, with the flip of a switch, communicate on the same radio frequency.

“No matter what badge you’re wearing, what patch you’re wearing, you have the capability of talking to each other,” Kenneston said. This leads to faster response times for storm-related events, and helps command staff get real-time information from throughout the Truckee Meadows for a clear picture of what is happening in terms of storm totals, flooding, traffic backups, and emergencies requiring police and fire response.

Building a better community

In addition to a collaborative emergency response plan for the region, the other major factor that has contributed to increased storm and disaster preparedness is a series of substantial improvements in infrastructure.

Look anywhere along the Truckee River today, and it’s hard to imagine the trickle of water running along the exposed boulders has the capability to jump its banks and invade homes and businesses. In 1997, however, downtown Reno and the industrial area of Sparks were completely flooded, as were significant portions of Hidden Valley and even the runways of the airport.

Ed Evans, senior hydrogeologist with the Truckee River Flood Project, said that topography contributes to significant floods in Reno and Sparks.

The flooding Truckee River water “starts moving eastward over low land and old farmland,” he said, beginning to overflow the banks just east of Interstate 580/395 and threatening the airport, as well as areas downstream. Downtown Reno can also be significantly affected, and the Truckee River Flood Project and the city of Reno have worked hard to make sure the disaster of 1997 doesn’t happen again.

Though many Reno locals vocally opposed the replacement of the historic Virginia Street Bridge, the old bridge was under-designed for flood events, and was, according to Evans, “a hydraulic choke point.”

City of Reno Engineering Manager Kerri Lanza agreed: “That particular bridge acted as a bottleneck, backing waters up and around until most of the floodwaters would end up in the streets and breaking out.”

The new clear-span bridge will not snag debris nor slow the river’s flow like the old bridge did. The newly built arched truss, currently sitting on Virginia Street just south of the river, should be pushed into place over the river later this month.

Besides improvements to the bridge, the Truckee River Flood Project has been identifying and helping to finance major projects to help keep a flooding Truckee River (and other flood-prone areas including Steamboat Creek and the North Truckee Drain) from causing property damage and endangering lives. They have already completed a flood wall around the new Wal-Mart at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony near the Grand Sierra Resort, and are helping some Hidden Valley homeowners to have their houses lifted, sometimes by as much as five feet, to mitigate potential flood damage.

Then there is a key system of flood monitors that has been established on the Truckee from Tahoe City to Pyramid Lake. This allows for real-time monitoring of river flows and levels which, in coordination with weather service data and watches, can lead to advanced warning of potential floods and allow for local authorities to begin preparing hours, and sometimes even days, in advance.

One key to coordinating and commanding the response for storms and other disasters is the Regional Emergency Operations Center (REOC) that was completed in 2003. The hilltop REOC command center is near the Truckee Meadows Community College campus. There, personnel from over 40 different agencies can monitor weather data, flood prediction sensors and communications of their in-field personnel, and respond to severe weather events and other crisis situations in real time.

The new Virginia Street bridge has slowly moved into place, taking more than 24 hours.

Photo/Michelle Matus

“The sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” said Kenneston, who is responsible for the daily management of the REOC. “We do probably 250-plus events a year out of the operations center, either actual responses or training. The goal is to have this network of people tied together in the region so when we identify something like a severe winter storm or a flood, that we can quickly come together, do some joint planning, and operate in a more cohesive manner.”

Going to the playbook

One key element in responding quickly to severe storms is to have a plan in place already. Every local agency and municipality has a plan or “playbook” with a specific and detailed protocol of operations during winter storms. There are many variables, and the best plans can still be challenged by rapidly changing and unexpected events. Plans are crucial, as they ensure that time is not lost meeting to discuss a myriad of decisions—with a well-written playbook, those decisions have already been made, refined and tested months or years in advance.

“Public Works has now developed a flood response plan,” said Lanza. “Based on different events we have forecasted on the Truckee River, we have action plans developed at various stages in the river. Basically, this plan covers those items that we would want to protect, either city properties or how we would provide sandbags and other resources to the public, what streets would be closed,” and other elements, usually with two to three days notice.

The Washoe County School District is tasked with making sure that over 63,000 students can make it safely to and from school during winter storms, as well as ensuring that the schools are ready, with sidewalks shoveled, and parking lots plowed, by the time the morning bell rings.

“We have a very efficient system in place,” said Victoria Campbell, public information officer for the Washoe County School District. The district keeps an eye on potential storms, often as far as a week ahead. Transportation staff hit the road at 3:30 a.m. on storm mornings to monitor weather and road conditions. If it is decided that the roads will not be safely plowed or will be too icy to bus students that morning, Campbell will be called at 4 a.m., and she will get the word out no later than 5:05 a.m.

The district’s ConnectEd system is the core of their playbook. It automatically calls parents to inform them of canceled school or delayed starts, and the recording is done in both English and Spanish. Parents will also receive an email, and media outlets, charter schools and colleges will be notified. When asked if she is every Washoe County school kid’s favorite voice when she announces school has been canceled, Campbell joked, “every parent hates my guts. They follow me around Wal-Mart throwing stuff at me.”

It’s the development of these plans, coupled with resources such as the REOC, that have earned Reno the designation of a “storm ready city” according to Kenneston.

Eyes on the Skies

The “storm ready” designation comes from the National Weather Service (NWS) whose Reno office is a sentinel perched near the REOC, overlooking the city they help protect. It is the key player as the weather warning system used by all local agencies.

While the National Climate Data Center has confirmed that this is a significant El Niño year, the National Weather Service works on short-term predictions of approaching weather, not low-certainty predictions about how an El Niño event might affect winter storms.

“We’ve had six major El Niños since the 1930s, and they’re split right down the middle,” said National Weather Service Meteorologist Tony Fuentes. Three of them have brought less-than-average precipitation to the region, and three have brought significant precipitation and heavy storms, including the last two, in 1982-83 and 1997-98.

The NWS meteorologists give local authorities, and the general public, an edge that any frequent bettor at the local sports books would love to have.

It starts 7 to 10 days out. At this point, if a storm begins forming in the Pacific, meteorologists can give the public a heads up in regards to a long-range forecast. As the storm enters the 3-to-5 day forecast period, Warning Coordination Meteorologists begin working with local agencies. At this point, there is still not a great degree of certainty in terms of when the storm might arrive, and how much precipitation it may bring, said Fuentes.

When a storm is within 24-48 hours of landing a blow on the Sierra and Truckee Meadows, the National Weather Service begins issuing watches and sharing information with the public and the agencies waiting to determine which page they’ll reference in various playbooks.

Radar is one of the most important tools for storm tracking, but the NWS can’t always rely on it. There are blind spots where the radar has trouble “seeing” over the adjacent mountainous terrain. Here, the weather service taps into satellites and reliable on-the-ground sources of information including web cams, and a network of NWS-trained volunteer weather spotters to keep relaying crucial information on wind speed, temperature, and rain and snow totals.

Predicting the unpredictable

The prevailing opinion among various public works, public information, and emergency management professionals is that Reno will have a warmer winter with heavier-than-normal precipitation. The National Weather Service is quick to point out that El Niño patterns are not the only factor that determines what kind of winter storms we will get, but in the Truckee Meadows, people are planning for lighter snowfall and heavier amounts of rain. In the mountains, higher elevations can still expect to see much of that precipitation as snowfall.

Is Reno ready for the next El Niño? The entire region is better prepared, informed, and trained than ever for major storms, disasters, and other unforeseen but wide-reaching events. The snowplows are loaded and ready, the roads have been brined, and people are monitoring weather and river levels. Shipping containers are loaded with sandbags and shovels, ready to help residents hold back flood waters. Up on the mountain, ski patrollers and groomers await the next big storm as snowmaking guns kick on as soon as temperatures drop to 32 degrees. Public information officers are contacting media outlets, recording hotline messages and posting on social media, making sure that in the next big storm, your city is safe, and, whether you want to or not, that you can get to work or school.

But as Kenneston says, even with a highly prepared, well-trained and often invisible army ready to tackle the next event head on: “You are only as good as your next disaster.”