Water fight

Council candidates bring different approaches

Naomi Duerr and Elisa Cafferata hustled for votes last month at a luncheon meeting of the Nevada Women’s Lobby.

Naomi Duerr and Elisa Cafferata hustled for votes last month at a luncheon meeting of the Nevada Women’s Lobby.

Photo/Dennis Myers

Elisa Cafferata and Naomi Duerr may clash in their race for Reno City Council, but they still have very similar interests—particularly water.

Duerr ran the Flood Project Coordinating Committee (now the Flood Management Authority) for six years, after serving as state water planner.

Cafferata was a management analyst for seven years at the Regional Planning Agency and director of Truckee Meadows Tomorrow, a private organization that focuses on quality of life.

“Water planning work, and really the local governments and the way they plan our communities, has a lot of impact on our quality of life,” Cafferata said.

Cafferata also has a considerable history in community organizing. In 1994 Oregon activist Lon Mabon, who succeeded in passing an anti-gay initiative petition in his state, then tried the same thing in adjoining states, including Nevada. The climate of opinion was very different in that year than it is now—hostile to gays. Cafferata put together a campaign to block the Mabon effort, recruiting both Democrats and Republicans—including her grandmother, U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, and her mother, former GOP nominee for governor Patty Cafferata. Casinos concerned about a gay boycott of Nevada joined the effort. Mabon failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

“I also grew up around a family that lived public service, and I saw the good work that my mother and my grandmother were able to do,” she said. “The thing about local government is that it is where people live. It’s the place where you can make the most difference.”

As for water, “There are a couple of things I’m really interested in,” she said. “Making sure that we plan for the best sustainable approach to water. And I work downtown at the Reno Collective”—a technology workspace business—“and tech jobs are what drive economic growth in cities. And it’s not just technology jobs but all of the support industries and people that come with that.”’

She does, in fact, mention terms like technology and innovation at every opportunity. She also said one part of city government needs change.

“Redevelopment is going to have to be redesigned because the redevelopment agency doesn’t have any funds to do new work,” she said. “They just need to pay off the debts they’ve incurred. So we need a new approach to redevelopment.”

She said quality of life is key to the city’s success.

“I think my campaign theme is really about smart government, looking at the long term to make communities that people want to live in and raise their families in.”


The Reno News & Review reported in 2006, “Naomi Duerr is one of two local officials who carry the area’s institutional knowledge of Truckee River flood control around in their heads” (“Flood money,” Feb. 23, 2006). So Cafferata, in emphasizing water, is facing a heavyweight.

Cafferata’s family heritage gave her a comfort level with politics. Duerr, though involved in public service, is less at home with the hail-fellow-well-met aspect of campaigning. For her, issues are everything. But she says her experience with the water agency gave her the kind of experience she will need to work with six other councilmembers. Here’s why: On the flood agency board, a single “no” vote could stop any initiative. The board was made up of two Reno members, two Sparks members, and two Washoe County members, whose governments could not normally agree on lunch. All actions required unanimous votes, and “I was able to accomplish 500 unanimous votes,” Duerr said.

In addition, because the flood agency had to set up all its actions and contracts through a local government—the county—she had to know how to work well with a competing entity, she said.

“I build consensus, and then I go get things done,” she said.

While the race has been relatively polite, one clash that irritated Duerr was an attack over the flood agency. “If you have such a sharp pencil, how is it that the flood project budget grew to $1.6 billion [when Duerr was director]?” Cafferata asked during a debate with Duerr.

While Cafferata’s question attracted attention and won her points for debating skills, Duerr said no one provided background on where the figures came from.

The Army Corps of Engineers regularly updates cost estimates on flood plans it participates in to keep figures current with inflation. In this case, Duerr said, the Corps re-costed essentially the same project three times in six years. Estimates went from $350 million to $800 million to $1.6 billion. Duerr’s role was informing the Coordinating Committee and the public of the changes.

“My opponent actually participated in developing that plan,” she said. “She knows what happened. They [the Corps] re-costed everybody’s plan in America, and everyone doubled.”

When she handled a project on her own—restoring several areas of the river—she said she was able to bring it in at about $20 million locally even though the Corps had estimated the project at $90 million. “I was able to get the Reno Sparks Indian Colony and the state of Nevada to give land,” she said. “And $2.2 million came from Walmart,” which was building a store in one of the affected areas.

The two candidates both argue in favor of the town/gown initiative currently being advocated by local powerbrokers to promote Reno as a “university town.”

“The communities that are invested in education are doing better in the economic recovery,” Cafferata said. “We need to invest in education and innovation—and not just in the university but in tech startups and local companies.”

“I think we all could benefit from that,” Duerr said. “The community could benefit. The students could benefit.”

Ward 2 runs from West Plumb Lane on its north end to the area around the Mt. Rose/Virginia City intersestion in the south, including a lot of industrial and shopping areas and relatively affluent residential neighborhoods that are fairly compact and thus easy to campaign in door-to-door.