Flood Of Controversy

A News & Review Investigation Reveals
The Reno Flood Wasn't Just An Act Of God

By D. Brian Burghart

Reno's Flood of 1997 may not have had to happen.

Forget acts of God. Forget 200-year precipitation levels.

The Flood of 1997 happened at least in part because of archaic government water policies that favor Lake Tahoe over Reno, and because the Army Corps of Engineers' choice not to remove debris and sediment that was left in the Truckee as a result of the 1986 flood—thus choking the channel.

“A lot of emotions go through you—you start saying if you would have done that or if you would have done this,” recalls flood victim Rae Burnet. The Burnets lost, all told, at least $100,000 in uninsured property at their unincorporated Washoe County home near Hidden Valley. “But it's not anybody's fault; it's Mother Nature. All these emotions start coming out. You want to find someone to blame.”

But Burnet may have someone, or more precisely, something to blame. And it's not Mother Nature.

A News & Review investigation into the causes of the flood reveals that federal policies made the flood much worse for Reno that it could have been. In fact, there may not have been a flood at all if it hadn't been for government shortsightedness.

Roger Kahn, president of the Tahoe City Public Utility District is just one local official who agrees that better planning and action to lower the level of Lake Tahoe could have averted or greatly mitigated this disaster.

There are no superlatives to describe the magnitude of this myopic blunder. One man's death was attributed to the flood. And, by most estimates, the damage to Washoe County was in the neighborhood of $650 million.

Averting A Flood

While media and politicians made the 1997 flood out to be an act of God, the Truckee River is controlled to a great extent by man. A small dam at Tahoe Calif., controls the outlet of water from Lake Tahoe. With all 17 gates open, the dam can send 2,630 cubic feet of water per second into the Truckee River and on its way through Reno and Sparks to Pyramid Lake.

On the day that Reno's Wingfield Park, river walk and downtown were under water, it was man's law—not God's—that was sending more than 2,630 cubic feet per second (cfs) from the dam into a convulsing Reno. True, because of the enormous watershed that contributed to the river, the river grew—but that 2,630 cfs was a large percentage of the water that streamed over the banks and drowned two cities, according to documents from the Nevada Division Of Water Planning.

Many have wondered if man could have prevented or eased the flood. While the topic has not been discussed in the media, it has been a big topic of conversation behind closed doors.

A letter sent this year to the Truckee Basin Committee (which is made up of the Sierra Pacific Power Company, Washoe County Water Conservation District and Truckee-Carson Irrigation District) and signed by Kahn, put it simply: “With proper planning and action to lower the level of Lake Tahoe in anticipation of winter precipitation, you could have averted or greatly mitigated this flood disaster.”

A RN&R investigation into
the causes of the flood reveals that,
in fact, there may not have been a flood at all
if it hadn't been for government shortsightedness.

Murmurs about the true causes of the flood began to trickle in almost immediately after the cleanup began. One rumor said that if the floodgates at Tahoe had been opened when the storm was predicted, there would have been room in Tahoe and a flood would have been averted. That rumor proved to be unfounded: The Water Master started draining the lake on Dec. 11, and the flood happened anyway. Another report said that if they'd closed the gates at Tahoe, less damage would have been done down here.

That rumor was true in its specifics, however. If the small dam in Tahoe, Calif. that regulates the amount of water that flows into Reno could have kept its gates closed on and around Jan. 1, Reno would have seen far less flooding than it did.

But the gates were open—wide open, in fact—because regulations mandated that they should be. U.S. government-approved rules mandate how high Lake Tahoe is allowed to go—regardless of the impacts on the Truckee Meadows. On Jan. 1, 1997, these rules demanded that the Water Master do something common sense dictated against: leaving the floodgates open on Reno.

“To close the dam off last year and reduce the flow in the river would be a benefit down here [in Reno], but you can't do that to benefit the folks here and potentially damage somebody else,” says Garry Stone, water master for the U. S. District Court in an interview with the RN&R.

“The time to make that decision is ... when we're not in danger, but it's kind of like you don't have to repair the roof because it ain't raining.”

Stone's duty as water master is to administer the federal court decrees with regard to the Truckee River and the Carson River. His job also includes keeping track of water rights, operation of reservoirs, making sure that the Fish & Wildlife Department gets water to endangered species and flood control.

On the day of the great flood, Stone was responsible for following federal rules. Even if every fiber of his being told him he shouldn't keep the floodgates open on Reno, he still had to follow policy. So the dams were left open to benefit Lake Tahoe, whose waters were also rising—but it was done at Reno's expense.

No one can blame Stone, as every aspect of his job involves following strict federal laws and procedures.

“Almost in every instance the policy is set, whether it be delivering irrigation water to a farmer or power generation water to the power company or fish water to Pyramid or reservoir operations—it's all pretty well set out. Either in the decree or by other agreements that have been entered into since the reservoirs were constructed,” says Stone.

“There's a bit of a misconception in the power that the water master has—he's basically bound by the federal court decrees and those agreements that have been hammered out over the years.”

Except for his role as non-voting chairman of the Truckee Basin Committee, Stone's view is that he has little room for maneuvering with regard to Tahoe's dam and the Truckee River Agreement (which was approved by the United States government and the Truckee Basin Committee in 1935). Essentially, the Truckee River Agreement is a law that must be followed by the water master.

So, when water levels in the snowpack around Tahoe reached the legal limit on Dec. 11, Stone had no choice but to begin draining the water into the Truckee. He was required to, by the Truckee River Agreement, which reads: “The parties hereto agree that the irrigation district shall so operate the dam and controlling works at the outlet of Lake Tahoe as to prevent, insofar as practicable, the water surface of said lake from exceeding elevation 6,229.1 feet above sea level.”

Stone was forced to let water pour out of the floodgates at Tahoe City into a swelling Truckee River and a chaotic Truckee Meadows to prevent flooding at Lake Tahoe.

On The Levels

To understand the process Stone had to go through before following federal law and opening the floodgates on Reno, one must understand Lake Tahoe's water levels—and their relationship to the 62-year-old Truckee River Agreement.

The number, 6,229.1-foot elevation, is one of the most important numbers with regard to Lake Tahoe's water storage. The other is 6,223-foot elevation, Lake Tahoe's natural rim. The water stored to satisfy the government's decrees is the 6.1 feet of water that fits between these elevations, about 744,600 acre-feet of water. After predictions from the National Weather Service and the Soil Conservation Service suggest that the snow melting into Lake Tahoe will fill it higher than the 6,229.1-foot elevation legal limit, the water master is required to go to the Truckee Basin Committee. Based on his recommendation, “99 times out of 100,” they'll let water out, Stone says.

When all 17 gates at Tahoe City are open, top flow into the Truckee River is 2,630 cubic feet per second (cfs). It is this 2,630 cfs that played a major role in forcing the Truckee over its banks and contributed to the devastating effects.

Stone was only following what is mandated by the Truckee River Agreement (TRA), which has been on the books since 1935 when Reno was only a fat spot on the railroad. The TRA could have been changed years ago, according to Stone. It would have saved the Truckee Meadows some heartache.

“If it had been planned in advance, and we could have shut [the gates of] Tahoe off, we could have had 2,600 cfs less in the river from the Tahoe standpoint—which would have reduced the flow through Reno,” Stone says.

Michael Steele, senior administrative analyst and emergency management coordinator for the city of Sparks, wonders whether the damage that may have happened to Lake Tahoe if the floodgates had been left closed could even compare with what happened to Washoe County.

“Let's see, we've got a flood. We have $450 to $650 million worth of damage going on, and somebody is releasing an additional 2,500 cubic feet a second into the river? That doesn't make much sense,” he says.

“Maybe there would be some additional damage to some piers, but it would be a whole lot easier to fix those piers than to put 20,000 people out of business. All those people receive paychecks; all those people buy groceries, buy services, go to hospitals, buy cars, buy widgets and that effects the economy. To say nothing of what it did to the airport, and to gaming and to recreation.”

That Dam Agreement

Steele isn't the only person with reservations about the TRA.

David Antonucci, general manager and chief engineer for the Tahoe City Public Utility District, is a member of an unnamed group that is trying to get the agreement modified. The group sponsored a workshop that included 35 people and public agencies last month. The group thinks that the lake should be kept closer to its natural rim, and the Truckee River Agreement modified.

“I think what we're saying is, 'We shouldn't have had that much water in the lake.' We've got to change the criteria for operation of the water levels in the lake ...” he says. “We're not criticizing [Stone's] decisions and his area of discretion because he's taking orders. ... If I have a criticism to be leveled it's against the system that's in place.”

If federal law required that less water be stored in the lake than is mandated now, it would protect Reno from future flooding because it would enable the lake to take on more in the event of a major rainstorm.

Antonucci sympathizes with Stone's legal plight and agrees that the Truckee River Agreement and how water is stored at Tahoe should be looked at now—not in a panic situation. He says the agreement was made more than 60 years ago when priorities were different.

On the day of the great flood,
Stone was responsible for following federal rules.
Thus the dams were left open to benefit Lake Tahoe
—but it was done at Reno's expense.

“The original purpose of the dam and the management of Lake Tahoe was to store water for the agricultural industry in Fallon, not fish and wildlife protection, not protection of property, and certainly not environmental protection,” Antonucci says.

The engineer admits that his concern is not so much for the Truckee Meadows—after all, he is a California official and the problems 40 miles downstream aren't his. His interest is in the environment at the lake and for the cities in California that were also flooded in the deluge. Still, in many ways, he thinks there is a lot of room for agreement between his position and Reno's desire not to be flooded.

“We're looking here just for cooperation and collaboration to solve a common problem,” he says. “I think we have something in common with the Truckee Meadows from the standpoint of flood control. We have the additional issue of the Lake Tahoe environmental quality and clarity, but we have a lot in common with the Truckee Meadows as it relates to the management of Lake Tahoe and flood control.”

Antonucci's group has four interests designated as priorities: protection of the clarity and water quality from the adverse effects of shoreline erosion; protection of public safety and health from flooding; protection of public and private property on the Lake Tahoe shoreline and along the full length or the Truckee River from flood damage; and the protection of the economy and environmental quality of the region.

He sees the TRA as an archaic law that has outlived its welcome.

“It is the last vestige of the resource exploitation of this area; like when we used to clear-cut the forests, we used to strip mine the lands and we used to dam up the lakes and rivers and store water and use it for land development purposes,” he says. “This is the last vestige of that—we don't clear-cut our forests anymore, we don't strip mine our lands, but we still are operating Lake Tahoe as though its sole purpose is to benefit agriculture in Fallon, Nevada, when in fact a lot has changed.”

If the lake were kept at levels closer to the natural rim, one of the benefits would be less erosion of the shore, which would add fewer nutrients to the water and increase clarity. Also, Antonucci holds out the carrot that if the lake were kept a foot lower on average, there would be enormous potential for flood control in Reno and Sparks—since in the event of a flood, more excess water would fit in the lake.

Modifying The TRA

Antonucci's group is willing to go to any lengths to get the TRA modified, including court or legislative action.

“We all think of Congress getting involved with some trepidation, but Congress certainly has the capability to reform the project by stipulating a new law,” he says. “Our view is that we can do this ourselves and do a better job if we all work together. The last place you'd want to go would be court or Congress. It could be done, if we all agreed we'd go back and start making changes, nobody loses water rights in the process.”

Water Master Stone agrees with Antonucci's assessment of the enormous potential for flood control at Tahoe.

“If we'd closed the Tahoe dam when this thing started, we think we would have raised the level about two-tenths of a foot above where it was. We were at 6,229.39; our math tells us that if we'd closed it off for three days, the level of the lake would have gone up two-tenths of a foot to 6,229.59,” says Stone. “So the question has to be asked, would that two-tenths of a foot on the surface of Lake Tahoe had an adverse effect on the lake or the shoreline until we could have dropped it back down again and what would have been the benefits to Reno Sparks had we done that? That's, to me, the simple question.”

The bottom line is if the flood level through Reno is 12,300 cfs, as shown by United States Geological Survey documents, then the 2,630 cfs from Tahoe was a whopping 44.5 percent of the water that destroyed so many lives.

Curiously, other documents (such as the July 1977 Army Corps of Engineers' Plan of Study—Truckee Meadows Investigation) show the flood stage through Reno to be higher than the US Geological Survey Documents. In 1977, the Army Corps of Engineers put the flood stage at 14,000 cfs. Using that figure, Tahoe's outflow would make up 61 percent of the damaging flood waters in Reno.

But the Truckee River Agreement wasn't the only manmade creation that contributed to the Great Flood of 1997.

Did The Corps Do Its Job?

Flooding is a normal event in the life cycle of a river. The Truckee River has a history of floods, including those in 1950, '55, '63 and '86. With the addition of the reservoirs, starting with Prosser in 1962, we have been protected against very high water. With a typical flood, big rains come, and the river gets swollen with water, sediment and debris. Sometimes the river overflows and finds a new bed. Sometimes it goes back to its old one. Big water is not a problem until you build a city around the river. Then when it floods, sediments begin to choke the river adding sand bars, silt, rocks, logs, what have you. The river can't change its course because the city around it defines its shape. So with each consecutive flood, there is more sediment and less ability for water to flow through. In other words, it takes less water to overflow the banks, and there is greater danger of flooding.

The job of keeping the channel clear falls mainly to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Did the corps do its job in the case of the Great Flood of 1997?

According to Sparks Engineer Steele, the Corps of Engineers dropped the ball.

“The problems that existed in the Truckee river at the time of the ['97] flood were that nothing was ever done after the '86 flood. The Corps of Engineers came in, did a huge, very expensive study, recommended tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of improvements, but when they looked at the plan and they weighed it against how much cost would be for benefit—the B/C ratio—the benefit/cost ratio fell below 1, and they will not do a project if it does that,” Steele says.

A benefit/cost ratio simply addresses the question of whether the amount you spend fixing something is more than its increased value—like putting a new motor in your 1978 Gremlin.

The job to keep the channel clear of debris
mainly falls to the US Army Corps of Engineers.
According to Steele, when it comes to the Truckee River,
the Corps dropped the ball.

Indeed, Col. Laurence R. Sadoff of the US Army Corps of Engineers' in a letter to US Senator Harry Reid, dated March 1992, said, “I am writing to inform you of our decision to reclassify the Truckee Meadows project to a deferred status. Our current evaluation indicates that the project is not economically feasible. The deferred status suspends all preconstruction engineering and design activities on the project. The enclosed office report dated May 1991 is a summary of our evaluation of the project.

“Should future events change the economics of the project, a restudy of the project may be requested by local interests. Then, if it is found to be economically justified, the project may be reclassified from deferred to active status.”

In an accompanying memorandum to the Commander of the South Pacific Division of the Corps regarding the reclassification, the approximate first cost of the 1984 study (two years before the last big flood) showed a $70.2 million first cost; a $6.1 million annual cost; and a $9.7 million annual benefit—for a positive benefit/cost ratio of 1.6:1. After six years of some of the nation's fastest population growth and development—and a flood on the river—the Corps revised its comparisons and stated the approximate first cost would be $101 million; the annual cost would be $9.3 million, and the annual benefit would only be $3.8 million—for a negative benefit/cost ratio of 0.4:1.

According to Donna Garcia, study manager for the planning department of the Army Corps of Engineers, the costs for the Corps of Engineers went up after the passage of a water resources bill in 1986, which created new regulations for the corps. She adds that there wasn't as much growth in Washoe County as had been projected, thereby decreasing the benefits of the project. “So basically, the cost exceeded the benefit and we were down to about a .4-to-1 benefit to cost ratio,” she says.

In the end, however, the cost of doing nothing may have been more. Damage from the 1997 flood is estimated at $650 million, hundreds of millions of dollars more than the cost of the Corps making improvements along the river.

What does the Corps of Engineers have to say about this? We were unable to reach Garcia for a second interview on this subject, and Kevin Roukey of the Army Corps of Engineers Reno office also did not return calls for comment.

Steele believes the Corps of Engineers should have valued our lands differently. “The problem at that time was the way they valued lands,” says Steele.

“A lot of the areas along the Truckee were not developed. They were looking at what the [actual] use was, so if they had a vacant lot, it was treated as a vacant lot of no value—even though for you or me to go out and purchase that lot might cost tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars, [to the Corps] it had no value. And so what it did was it drove the benefit/cost down, the B/C ratio fell below one—and the Army Corps of Engineers will not do a project once that happens.”

Choke Points

Michael Steele says the Army Corps of Engineers is doing little along the river despite the Flood of '97, so the city of Sparks is taking action on its own to improve the condition of the portion of the Truckee River that runs through its city.

The river capacity through Sparks is considerably less than through Reno, and has featured some “choke points.” A choke point is, for lack of a more elegant metaphor, like the hair on the drain of your shower. That patch of hair, while it is porous, is enough to cause the water to back up and fill the tub.

Sparks, following the flood in 1997, has spent millions trying to get its stream flow into an adequate condition. Much of the effort involved removing 23,000 cubic yards of gravel from the river.

“We had to take responsibility for what we needed to do. We couldn't face our people in the industrial area with an El Nino-type situation and say, 'We didn't do a damned thing,' ” says Steele.

“We had to take responsibility for what
we needed to do. We couldn't face our people
in the industrial area with an El Nino-type situation
and say, 'We didn't do a damned thing,' ”
says Michael Steele.

“We just couldn't do that. So we told the Corps of Engineers, 'We are going into the river; we are going to restore its water-carrying capacity; we are going to harden and repair all the levees and the banks on our side of the river; we are going to repair all the damage that was done to the ditches. We are going to pump the Helm's pit. We are going to do all these projects; can you help us?' Initially their answer was 'Yeah, in three to five years' and we said 'That's not good enough.' ”

But Steele worries that unless Reno, Washoe County, the Corps of Engineers, the federal government and all the other myriad of agencies get their responsibilities under control, Sparks' work could turn out to be wasted. The entire river has to be healthy and clear, or choke points form.

“To my knowledge, Washoe County and Reno have done much less than we have. In fact, as far as I know, Reno and Washoe County haven't done any bank restoration at all ... Which is unfortunate because if they've got problems, we're going to have problems,” he says.

Washoe County registered engineer Kimble Corbridge says the jurisdiction has done nothing to repair the river after the flood. “I don't think we've done anything. I know individual property owners got permission from the Army Corps of Engineers for emergency permits,” Corbridge said. “I know the county worked with FEMA to purchase the Truckee River mobile home park in Lockwood, and to relocate people from there.”

He said that the park, which suffered major damage in the Flood of 1997, was also damaged in the '86 flood and, while it's a minor choke point, the major choke point is “the narrows right there at the canyon (the area formerly known as the Vista reefs, it was the first major Corps of Engineer's project after the '55 flooding, the worst flooding ever recorded in the Truckee Meadows) and there's nothing you can do about that one.”

Associate engineer Glen Daly of Reno Public Works believes Steele's view is a little pessimistic.

“There have been a number of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funded repair projects done along the Truckee,” he says “specifically along parks next to the river. The city did most of the debris removal with city trucks and crews early on. A lot has been done, but there is still more to be done.”

Daly refused to speculate as to the condition of flow in the river. “That'd probably be best run by the Corps of Engineers,” he said. “One misconception is that the city has control over the rivers. We actually only have jurisdiction up to the boundaries.”

There are also concerns about Reno's downtown bridges, which can also contribute to the seriousness of a flood. The bridges downtown are considered historical treasures, and city leaders don't want to make any radical changes to them.

“There is no viable project for downtown Reno,” says Steele. “They do not want levees because they wouldn't fit in as an aesthetic consideration; also, they consider their bridges historical artifacts, and they aren't willing to make major changes in their bridges. Downtown's a choke point, and what they are looking at for their part of the project is flood-proofing buildings that are down there.

“It's kind of like not taking care of the child who is playing with the matches, but making your house more fireproof; that type of thing. And it's their choice. It's not a choice I would have made, but that's their choice. For them it increases aesthetic quality and makes their downtown look beautiful.”

Flood Of Tears

The beauty of downtown Reno is probably not at the top of Rae Burnet's list.

“My son's father died when he 12, and they sent everything, all the pictures and everything, to my son because he was an only child. [It was] something my son—he's 22 now—did not want to deal with. So, of course, it sat in boxes. They got saturated. I think my mother saved everything but the yearbooks.

“I can't buy a Christmas tree. My husband says go buy a Christmas tree, but I don't want to go out to the garage and see what I don't have anymore. The feelings keep coming back; you go out thinking, 'Well, I'm going to find this,' but it's trashed. You kept it hoping you could save it. I think that's the worst—the personal things from people who are gone that you can't replace.

“I was really angry—that was the emotion. You go home; you look at your house. You don't even want to come around the corner and look at it. My house was still standing. I can't even imagine how it would have been at Walker. I just can't even imagine. And that's what makes you think, 'I was lucky.' ”

But how much of the Flood of 1997 had to do with luck and fate and how much involved government policy—especially the Truckee River Agreement?

Lyman McConnell, project manager for the Truckee/Carson Irrigation District (which selects members for the Truckee Basin Committee), says only the courts have the power to change the agreement. Some people may want to change it, he says, but it's doubtful it will ever happen.

Ultimately, he says, “I don't think you're going to change that lake level.”

Questions, comments, or suggestions? Drop me a line.

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