It’s nature’s way of flood control

We gathered on the sunny side of the river for warmth, but down in the canyon, the winter sun wasn’t much help. Danielle Henderson, resource specialist for the Truckee River Flood project, was there to meet me and five Environmental Studies majors to teach us about the restoration work on the river east of town.

Like most rivers, the Truckee is subject to regular floods, some of them catastrophic. Not only do the floods come from weather events like a “pineapple express” storm system, but where the river flows through the mountains east of Sparks, there is a scarp of basalt known by various names such as “Vista shoals” or “Vista break,” where the water passes through a narrow canyon and, in flood stage, often backs up into the meadows.

In the 1950s, the vision of the Army Corps of Engineers was to engineer rivers into straighter and deeper channels—the idea being that flood damage would be minimized if the water could move more quickly. But the result of this effort was to drop the water table so far down that whole riparian ecosystems began to suffer. Now we realize that the original, meandering path of the rivers helped to absorb the force of floodwaters, recharge water back into the ground table, and provided whole habitats more able to withstand damage from things like invasive noxious weeds.

At a Lockwood site, we could witness the effects of this new approach to rivers—the formerly straightened river now flows in a wide arc around an island forested with old cottonwoods. New cottonwood saplings, staked and wrapped to help get off to a solid start, stood along the southern shore, someday to shade the hiking trails and picnic tables.

A few miles down the road we clambered up a rocky hill to get a view of a Mustang site, another restoration project in process. This looked more like an industrial construction site than an ecological restoration—tractors, dredgers and front-loaders zoomed across sculpted, barren hills—moving huge loads of dirt and rock into place to reconstruct another historic meander in the river.

The amount of collaboration, research and design going into this project is mind-boggling. Danielle assured us that each meander is carefully designed to mirror historic river flows and that the construction of them includes careful attention to healthy habitat requirements of the native plant and animal life.

Stakeholders include the city of Reno, city of Sparks, Washoe County, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and the Nature Conservancy. And as impressive as the view was from the bluff over the Mustang site, these projects are only the initial stages of a hoped-for collaboration with the Corps of Engineers to rebuild our entire community’s flood resilience, this time paying closer attention to the needs of our healthy ecosystem, as well as the economic concerns of property owners.

Our last stop took us to a view of the very first river restoration project at McCarran Ranch. The tiny, historic ranch house sits in a stand of tall cottonwoods. Beyond, new stands of willow and cottonwood stood basking in the radiant sunlight. Danielle told us that these stands had not only withstood the onslaught of the 2005 flood, but had also begun to self-colonize and expand, demonstrating that the efforts to bootstrap a healthy, self-sustaining ecosystem had indeed worked.

Is there a message here about bootstrapping our economy and getting ourselves back to work? If so, it might be something about paying attention to the historic pathways and slowing down the flow.