Rebel river

Flood control planners try to figure out how to protect the Truckee Meadows from future deluges without harming those down the river

The flood of 1997 turned several streets into “Lake Street

The flood of 1997 turned several streets into “Lake Street"—literally.

Photo By Troy Tossy

More on the history of flood control and the recently approved plan for the Truckee River can be found at

Like all rivers, the Truckee’s a feisty chick. She wants her way. Oppress her with cement walls and levees long enough, and she’ll be hankering to bust out.

Water, water everywhere.

The Truckee’s going to run high every so often. We can plan on it. Floods of varying sizes arrive about once a decade, once every 30 years, 100 years, 500 years. And, while almost nothing could mediate the tsunami-style devastation of, say, a collapsed dam in the Sierra Nevadas and the ensuing 67-foot wall of water (see “Dam Dangers” page 13), damages from flood events in Reno can be lessened with a bit of advance planning.

What’s a growing city to do?

A key word here is growth. Most water people agree that, when it comes to building more businesses and homes in a flood plain, a little planning goes a long way. Increased development (read: more buildings) leaves less space for water to soak into the ground. Less space for water to soak into the ground means more run-off, more accumulated rushing water and more flooding.

“One problem common to cities is that we’ve made it difficult for the flood to access its flood plain,” says John Cobourn, water resource specialist for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. “It wants access, and it’ll find access. But people don’t want it to have access, because their homes or businesses are in the way.”

It makes you think about the vacant riverfront lot that used to be the Mapes in a whole different way. If the lot were used as a park, an athletic field or, yes, even a parking lot, it would be available to the river in times of need.

Cobourn calls this concept—using land for more than one thing—"multi-objective flood plain design.” He’s not personally advocating this for the Mapes lot. But it makes sense to use this strategy when dealing with a river that just needs its space once in a while.

“If you have a casino right next to the channel, that’s basically one use—a casino,” he says. “It can’t be used as a flood plain. If you have a park with picnic tables, it can be used as a place to walk or have picnics. Then, when the flood comes, police can close it off and [tell people not to] use it.”

Using multi-objective flood plain design is one of several nonstructural flood control methods, Cobourn says. These methods allow the river a bit more space to do what rivers do. Cobourn refers to rivers as “geomorphically dynamic systems,” earth-changing forces that are always in flux. In past decades, society has relied on structural flood control methods, including flood walls, dams and levees, to keep rivers from endangering lives and property.

"[Structural systems] generally engineered solutions to try to move the water faster in some places and slower in others,” Cobourn says. “But after the Mississippi River Flood [of the early 1990s], there was more talk about alternatives to that managed approach—an alternative that allows the flood water to act in more natural ways and to occupy its flood plain in some places.”

Cobourn doesn’t advocate one method of control over another. In most areas, some kind of balance must be struck between the two. But, in some cases along the Mississippi River, entire towns are being relocated.

“They’re moving buildings and rebuilding towns higher and further away from the channel,” Cobourn says. “They’re allowing the river to reoccupy the flood plain.”

The distinction between structural and nonstructural flood control methods seems to be essentially a question of control. Power. Domination. And whether humankind can ever really be in charge of a geomorphically dynamic system.

Flood control plans for the Truckee Meadows have been sloshing around the collective Northern Nevada mind for decades. In January, a $188 million draft concept for a plan was crafted by the Truckee River Flood Management Community Coalition. The community-developed flood control plan was forwarded to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to be considered and possibly incorporated into their final solution, to be submitted to Congress for funding next year. In the coming months, the plan will be priced out and its environmental impact assessed. Hopefully, some kind of plan can get off the ground in 2002.

The Army Corps and the local groups will be looking for even more public input, says Mike Campbell, Army Corps project manager for the Truckee Meadows Nevada Flood Control Project.

It’s about time. Many river activists agree that any kind of plan to guide the Truckee through Reno in times of trouble could have been of use in 1997.

“If we could have done this before the flood, we could have saved a lot of money,” says Susan Lynn, executive director of Public Resources Associates and commodore of the Truckee River Yacht Club.

The Army Corps has been thinking about flood control strategies since the 1960s. In 1986, the Army Corps devised a $90 million plan that would have installed many structures to control the Truckee, including five miles of flood walls, seven miles of levees and six rebuilt bridges. Preconstruction, engineering and design started in 1988. But before building began, the project hit some financial snags. The Corps decided the project cost too much money for the expected benefits.

Flood control ended up on hold for nearly a decade. In mid-1996, the project was back on the table. But, by then, it was too late to do any good for the Flood of 1997. The flood caused $500-$600 million in damages.

And the problem isn’t going away. If anything, it’s exacerbated by urban growth.

“This is a problem that gets worse as development increases,” Campbell says. “We’ve been studying it for 30 years. Now the three governments, Reno, Sparks and Washoe County, are working together with the community to make something happen.”

In April, the Community Coalition began meeting in the Truckee Meadows to work out the details of a flood management plan that could be presented as an alternative to the Army Corps. The citizens didn’t think much of flood walls and levees.

“This is the biggest monetary expenditure on the river of all time,” Lynn says. “We want to make sure we help it reconnect to being a more natural river … and use the opportunity to improve flood protection, water quality, recreational amenities, wildlife habitat and the quality of life in the Truckee Meadows.”

Channel benching—the creation of a series of elevated benches along the banks for the rivers to climb—and natural floodplain storage in areas like the university farms east of town are a couple of the elements included in the Community Coalition’s draft plan.

The plan is largely in favor of the “living river concept.” Instead of walls to hold back the water, benches would allow the river to move along more “naturally,” even when the waters get higher.

“The more we restore the natural elements of the river, the more we restore the river’s ability to take care of itself,” states a written explanation of the plan. The concept intends to allow access to the river’s banks for more recreation, like fishing, hiking and rafting. And the plan plots the course for the restoration of fish-friendly habitats and riparian zones in low areas that may bring natural wildlife back to the river. Unnecessary floodwalls and rip-rap would be removed from the riverbanks and replaced with more environmentally friendly stabilization structures.

This all sounds great, right?

Maybe not.

Some of these changes could increase the peak flow of water downstream, where the water flows out of the Reno-Sparks area toward Pyramid Lake, Campbell says. That’s not so good for folks living downstream.

“The benching plan right now kind of forces more water downstream,” he says.

When the flow increases, water quality can get worse and make life a bit more difficult for fish, plants and people. The Pyramid Lake Paiutes don’t appreciate this. They’re just starting to recover from the last public flood control project, they say.

“The tribe was always under the understanding that the [latest] flood control wouldn’t increase flood flows [as water passes through] Vista,” tribal chairman Alan Mandell says. The tribe didn’t participate alongside the local flood planners, because they assumed that their position was clear. That’s why the plan on the table surprised them.

“All they’re doing is pushing the problem downstream,” Mandell says. After becoming aware of the trouble, the tribe realized their involvement with the citizen group was integral. “We have so many issues going on with the water. We’re at the table now.”

Actually, the original proposal by the Army Corps, including the structural flood control methods like flood walls, is the proposal that the tribe likes best so far.

“We’ve been heavily invested in the Army Corps’ original plan,” Mandell says.

A letter from Mandell to Paul Urban, project manager for the Truckee River Flood Management Community Coalition, recalls the damage done to Pyramid Lake as a result of the area’s last flood control project in the 1960s. The project lowered the Vista reef, deepening and straightening the Truckee River. The increased flow of water wrecked the homes of tribal members, eroded hundreds of acres of the tribe’s healthiest agricultural lands and eliminated most of the cottonwood trees and other riparian vegetation in the area.

“The tribe will not let that happen again,” Mandell writes in the letter.

Flood control planners say that they will make sure any project receiving final approval looks at the river’s whole geomorphically dynamic system—upstream, downtown Reno, downstream Sparks and beyond.

“If one portion of the plan has an impact on another portion of the plan or another user of the river, that needs to be mitigated,” says Bob Harmon, county public relations liaison. “When the [Pyramid Lake Tribe] was outspoken on it, we were very happy. [People] need to come down and talk while the plan is being formulated.”

More chances for public input on the flood control plan will come during the project’s environmental impact assessment phase.

“Public participation has just begun,” Harmon says.

Harmon says he’s impressed by how many volunteers have been involved to date, especially since it’s hard to think about a flood on a sunny day.

“It’s obvious that people remember the kind of damage a bad flood can do to this area,” he says. “And that they appreciate the river’s contribution to the community as a whole.”

One such volunteer is Rose Strickland, who’s lived in Reno for 20 years. The river, she says, is the center of many lives in the Truckee Meadows. It’s a hub for the arts community (think Wingfield Park in the summer) and a haven for naturalists.

“We’ve got plenty of lessons we need to learn,” Strickland says. “We don’t want to repeat anyone’s mistake. Our goal is to craft a solution that’s unique to our river and our valley.

“And when I say ‘our river,' I mean from above Reno to Pyramid Lake. Whatever we do in the Truckee Meadows is going to affect all those communities along the river. The river makes us neighbors, so the solution should work for everyone."