Nevada Focus: From enemy to ally, once invisible river key to Reno's revival

RENO, Nev. (AP) -- For decades, the Truckee River was ignored.

U.S. Sen. John Ensign recalls hotel-casinos lining their garbage bins along the river 30 years ago to keep patrons away from what was viewed largely as a downtown drainage ditch.

Later, on New Year's Day 1997, the river became public enemy No. 1 when rainstorms melted heavy snow pack, sending waters raging down the Sierra from Lake Tahoe, swamping downtown Reno and neighboring Sparks with $700 million in flood damage.

Now, an effort to restore the Truckee to its natural channels and flood plain is being pitched as a way to redevelop the growing city's core as it grapples with environmental and economic challenges alike.

"This river is the lifeblood of our community," said Susan Lynn, a local backer of the $200 million-plus proposal that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin to formally review next year.

"For downtown Reno, the Truckee River is the jewel that makes us unique," said Robert Ryan, Reno's director of redevelopment.

It wasn't always that way.

"Northern Nevada used to try to hide the river," said Ensign, R-Nev., whose parents worked at Harrah's Reno when he was growing up. "They put garbage Dumpsters between the hotels and the rivers so people would not go down there."

"It shows you how the community has changed the way it looks at the river."

Fifteen years in the making, the new effort has its roots in the wave of public opposition to previous flood control plans the Army Corps unveiled in 1985. That plan was typical of the dam-building agency -- five miles of flood walls, seven miles of levees and replacement of six bridges at an estimated cost of about $75 million.

"It met with a public outcry," recalls Neil Krutz, deputy director of community development for the city of Sparks. "People felt it had the potential to disconnect the river from the community."

The new plan would improve parkway areas, protect natural riverside habitat and improve water quality by allowing the river to open up and spread out into the natural flood plains as it did before the Army Corps widened, straightened and deepend the river in the 1960s.

"We want the river to act more like a river," said Paul Urban, Washoe County project manager for the Truckee River flood management project.

"The goal is not only to protect property but respect the environment and make the river more of an asset to the community than just a drainage ditch," he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been working with local leaders and government officials.

"I'd like to see this duplicated nationwide," Gen. Robert Flowers, head of the Army Corps of Engineers, said during a recent visit to Reno with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.

"Those projects that are the most inclusive are the most likely to succeed," he said.

The Truckee River runs about 100 miles, dropping 2,400 feet in elevation as it rushes from the alpine waters of Lake Tahoe through downtown Reno and into the high desert at Pyramid Lake.

A review by the Corps in August 1997 concluded "there continues to be a substantial demonstrated flood problem" in the Reno-Sparks area.

Damaging floods have been documented in 1861, 1862, 1867, 1886, 1890, 1900, 1907, 1909, 1928, 1937, 1950, 1955, 1963, 1986 and 1997, the Corps said.

The 1950, 1955, 1986 and 1997 floods were of similar magnitude and the most damaging because they occurred after significant residential and business growth.

The initial call for additional flood measures came after the 1950 and 1955 floods, "some of the biggest floods the region has ever seen," said Elisa Maser, executive director of Champions of the Truckee River.

The Corps' responded by building reservoirs and widening river channels, breaking away bedrock that formed a natural bottle neck on the east end of Sparks at an area called the Vista reefs.

"That changed the water table because more water was leaving the region all the time," Maser said about the slowing waters.

"It did help for flooding, but it changed everything in the normal years, too. It was an unintended consequence," she said. "It really predated environmental analysis before all the environmental impact studies that are required under the legislation passed in the late 1960s and 1970s."

Estimates on the project range from $200 million to $230 million. About half of that would be paid locally, some $85 million of it through a one-eighth cent increase in the local sales tax recently approved in Washoe County.

Sparks Mayor Tony Armstrong is among the allies.

"So often in the past, this river has been taken for granted," Armstrong said. "It has been ignored except when we have a flood, then everybody realizes we have a river."

Mary Connelly, a longtime aide to Sen. Harry Reid, will attest to that. Now Reid's state director, she was one of the staffers whose task was to promote Reid's own flood control plan during the late 1980s at a time the state was suffering a seven-year drought.

"There was not a lot of community or government interest in talking about flood control," she recalls. "They wanted to talk about finding what precious little water there was."

Reid was under constant pressure to abandon his plans, she said. Then, on Jan. 1, 1997, "everything changed."

"It became clear we could start talking about flood control again," she said.

Ryan said the $700 million in 1997 flood damage was equal to twice the annual budgets of Reno, Sparks and Washoe County combined. The river flooded 7,500 acres and closed 34 million square feet of businesses.

"The region was shut down for five days. You couldnOt drive here. You couldnOt fly here," Ryan said.

In subsequent years, a river walk pathway has been built and a new theater complex opened on the downtown banks. Last month, the upscale Siena Hotel-Casino opened with a restaurant patio overlooking the river.

A monthlong arts festival in July revolves around a downtown park with an amphitheater on a small island in the middle of the Truckee. River rafting trips have sprung up and a blueprint is before the Reno City Council for a recreational kayaking course through downtown.

Others are trying to build support for a minor league baseball park near the river.

"This should be the shining star for Reno and Sparks," Ensign said during a recent news conference promoting the project.

"It should serve as a background for economic diversification," he said about the metropolitan area of about 300,000 trying to ward off new economic threats from Indian casinos in California.

"It's such a beautiful, natural attraction. Las Vegas doesn't have this."


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