The water dilemma

A local agency is setting the plan that decides where and when urban growth will end

Photo By David Robert

Washoe County Commissioner Jim Galloway sits at a table strewn with official-looking papers at Borders Books, Music and Café and sips a latte. He patiently explains certain of the benefits and drawbacks to the settlement negotiated among Reno, Sparks and Washoe County by Washoe District Judge James Hardesty. A pair of elderly chess-playing men at the neighboring table look over occasionally as Galloway shuffles through masses of documents and maps. Oasis plays overhead. The men are interested in what Galloway is up to, but not overtly.

Galloway places business cards in a row on the table.

“These three represent the zoning that is already built that we have water for,” he says. He adds one to the row, “This is development that is planned that we think we have water for.” He places six more cards in a hexagonal pattern around the cards. “This is zoning we have planned, but we don’t know whether we will have water for it.”

He shakes his head at the quandary, blue eyes wrinkled at the future, looking academic in his charcoal-gray fleece vest.

“It’s like everybody is gathered around a bowl of water. The water in the bowl represents water rights. Every piece of zoning out there that requires water is a cup—big cups and little cups. There’s a little trickle coming into the bowl as we gain more water. But there are more cups than there is water to fill them. … The people who get to the bowl first get the water. And other people standing there with their cups get stiffed.”

Judge Hardesty’s negotiated settlement in mid-October, which was precipitated by a lawsuit by the county and the Sun Valley against the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Governing Board, mostly dealt with things like the “spheres of influence” that drove voters to distraction on Election Day. At its most basic, a “sphere of influence” is the area where the cities plan to grow in the next 20 years. The areas are on the outskirts of town, mostly on the main roads to the north, south, east and west. Reno and Sparks can move their “city limits” signs farther into these areas pretty much without challenge. The words “sphere of influence” are misleading, as these areas are not spherical, and they don’t show where cities have influence, but more precisely, where they want it.

While the agreement specifies the cities’ plans for new growth, it also makes a revolutionary change in how Reno, Sparks and Washoe County plan for growth. Hardesty’s agreement contains a statement that reads, “The Regional Planning Commission and the Regional Planning Governing Board will amend the comprehensive regional plan to clearly delineate that the comprehensive regional plan is natural resource constrained.”

It’s the most significant change in policy since the Regional Plan was developed.

Before the agreement, the Regional Plan—while based on principles of urban growth and municipal design—had no limits based on the reality of the environmental world outside AutoCAD. It assumed that water would always be available. It assumed that the air could always handle more pollution. It assumed that the Truckee River could always take more solids and nitrogen. Essentially, the plan was economically instead of environmentally driven.

The new plan, the “natural-resource constrained” plan, turns that on its head. Now the Regional Plan must conform to the Water Plan. And that plan, because of Judge Hardesty’s order, is under construction by a little-known, appointed, independent board, the Regional Water Planning Commission.

“That’s absolutely different than it used to be,” says Bob Firth, former chairman of the RWPC and local water rights consultant. “Before, you’d do the zoning and land-use planning and then figure out if you had enough resources. Now they’re trying to do it the other way around. There are a certain amount of water resources available, and then it’s up to the cities and the county to decide how they want to use it.”

With that kind of power, the Regional Water Planning Commission will not likely stay little-known for long.

The Regional Water Planning Commission was created in 1995 to provide a method for the planning of water use, flood control and wastewater management. The RWPC is made up of nine voting members and alternates, and eight non-voting members and alternates.

The nine members are chosen to represent some of the entities in the area. They are: Chairman George Shaw (representing Washoe County), Vice-Chairman Susan Lynn (representing the public at large), Diana Langs (representing Sun Valley General Improvement District), Greg Dennis (representing the city of Reno), John Erwin (representing Truckee Meadows Water Authority), Albert John, Jr. (representing Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe), George W. Ball, Jr. (representing Washoe County Water Conservation District), Michael DeMartini (representing well owners) and Wayne Seidel (representing city of Sparks).

Staff is made up of Jim Smitherman, water management planner coordinator, and Debra Carr, administrative secretary, both of the Washoe County Department of Water Resources.

It is fortunate that the group was already working on an update to the Regional Water Management Plan when the judge handed down his order on Oct. 17, says Smitherman. Part of the agreement stipulates that RWPC come up with its policies and criteria in 120 days, which ends Valentine’s Day.

The bottom line is that nobody yet knows where, when or if development in Truckee Meadows will end. A report by Stantech Consulting said the area is already short usable water rights if all available zoning were built—and that was before the “spheres of influence” were greatly expanded. The as-yet-unsigned Truckee Meadows Operating Agreement purports to have water to the Truckee Meadows for about two decades. TMWA’s draft resource plan suggests that, based on economic factors, development will flatten out in three or four decades.

There are other water-related issues, says Smitherman, that could have just as big an impact on planning the amounts of water for homes and businesses in the Truckee Meadows. The treated wastewater effluent that flows into the Truckee River may turn out to be the obstacle that curtails the area’s new growth. The limiting factor could even turn out to be the very air we breathe.

Smitherman takes the role of devil’s advocate for a moment.

“Just look over the border at California,” he says. “Has water resource availability ever really been a constraint for someplace like the Los Angeles basin? No. The aqueduct projects brought water in there and allowed growth to go on. So is that really a resource constraint? Or is money really the limit?”

As the RWPC conducts its weekly Friday meeting at the U-shaped tables in the Department of Water Resources building on Energy Way, interested engineers, activists, planners—even Washoe County Commissioner Jim Galloway—look on intently. It is apparent the group takes its charge seriously, but there are people in the audience who don’t necessarily have high hopes that they will live up to the task the judge has ordered them to do. The group has barely begun laying ground rules for making these new policies. There’s an audible whisper in the back of the room as one member asks, "Does anyone know what the judge meant by ‘natural resource constrained?' "