The 1997 flood, here seen at the corner of Lake and First streets, was the impetus for a mammoth flood control plan.

Washoe County, Reno and Sparks last week decided to create another governing agency, this one to administer a huge flood control plan.

The new agency will have the power to impose fees and tolls and raise the local share of federal funds to get ready for a $1.6 billion flood control project desired by a coalition of builders and unions.

Its governing board will be made up of two members each of the Washoe County Commission, Sparks City Council and Reno City Council.

It will join several other such agencies, including the Airport Authority and the Regional Transportation Commission.

But some local leaders and businesspeople wanted a simpler plan in which the Washoe County Commission served as the flood control agency.

How does the public hold officials accountable when the authority of city councils and the county commission is dissipated into other agencies? Political scientist Fred Lokken says it’s not a worry.

“As long as Sparks resists consolidation, I think they [special agencies] have become necessary ways to get the information on various topics that is needed,” he said. “Everybody contributes.”

He said one positive feature is that the new agency will have the “ability to bond and raise the money they need.” He said voters don’t have to worry about accountability because such agencies “are playing by the same rules as any elected body. More specifically, they’re subject to the open meeting law.”

More skeptical is Reno Mayor Bob Cashell.

“I’m tired of creating governments, extra layers of government,” he said.

Cashell said authority is scattered around.

“Oh, yes, it is, the way it’s cut up and stuff,” he said. “Sparks has, I don’t know how many members they have on the Airport Authority. RTC—it’s pretty split by population, in its representation.”

He is skeptical whether the huge sums projected for the flood control project can be raised.

The clearest and simplest deal for voter accountability is the Reno Redevelopment Agency, which is just the Reno City Council under another name.

The Regional Transportation Committee’s governing board is made up of two Reno councilmembers, two county commissioners and one Sparks councilmember.

The Reno Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority has the same elected makeup, plus eight unelected members, so the voters’ choices are outnumbered.

The Airport Authority does not have a single elected official on its governing board.

The upshot can be that some regions or areas of the city can be affected by decisions of such agencies without having one member of a governing body representing their area’s interests.

Too big?

The new flood control agency was authorized by Senate Bill 175 of the 2009 Nevada Legislature. The measure was approved unanimously in the Senate (with one member not voting), but in the Assembly it passed on an unusual straight party-line vote, every Democrat supporting it and every Republican opposing it. Washoe County lobbyists predicted a veto, but Gov. Jim Gibbons approved it after language requiring local officials to comply with a voter-approved initiative petition and keep their growth projections in line with available water was removed from the bill.

The size of the flood project is troubling to some. Cashell has his doubts that the local money can be raised, given Nevada’s long-term economic problems, and suggests that the project be trimmed down to make it less expensive and more marketable to the feds.

“I think they’re having a pipe dream that they’re going to get a billion dollars from the federal government to do this,” he said. “And I think maybe some of these living river projects have to be readdressed and look at doing concrete walls like they did in Napa, California.”

Since the 1997 New Year’s flood, which prompted concern about flood control, smaller flood control projects have been done, but the ambitious $1.6 billion project will take major local money commitments. Local governments have been having difficulty with maintenance of their existing budgets, to say nothing of special projects. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid has obtained more than $20 million for flood control protecting the Truckee Meadows. Under a peculiarity of law, these federal dollars count toward the local share that must be raised for the federal share of the flood control plan’s costs. “The funding arrangements that I helped to secure will go a long way to providing much of the local share of funds that will be necessary to ensure that western Nevada is protected from floods along the Truckee River,” Reid has said in a prepared statement.

After serious flooding in Reno at mid-20th century, upstream dams and other flood control projects were completed, and any sense of urgency was reduced. But in the mid- and late-1990s, flooding for which the area was poorly prepared hit, with the 1997 event particularly damaging. Industrial areas in Sparks, the Reno airport, Rosewood Lakes and the downtown were especially hard hit.

A Truckee River Flood Project Coordinating Committee spent years developing a plan to ease the passage of water from the Truckee Meadows to Pyramid Lake. Water in 1997 backed up from the Truckee River Canyon east of Sparks into the Truckee Meadows, though a 1998 RN&R investigation found that a federal court decree governing the Truckee River exacerbated the severity of the flood, as did decisions by the Army Corps not to keep river channels cleared of debris.

Although the Army Corps of Engineers has not yet signed off on the flood control plan, if that approval comes through next year as hoped for by local officials, it would clear the way for construction soon afterward, which would be an economic boon to an area that is in deep recession.

If the project is not approved by the Army Corps, that would be a serious setback. Among concerns expressed over flood control have been the impact on threatened species, including the Lahonton cutthroat trout and the Cui-ui, a survivor in Pyramid Lake from ancient times.

Some local officials, such as Sparks City Councilmember Ron Smith, have predicted another crippling flood will occur before the flood control project is constructed. The 1997 flood is described as a 117-year event, meaning that such a flood would likely happen every 117 years.

Some other projects already well along that would affect flood control are replacement of the historic downtown Reno bridge over the Truckee River on Virginia Street (which causes debris jams during flooding), a storm drain replacement project in Sparks and elevation of homes in the Hidden Valley area.

Labor unions have agitated for assurances that local workers will be favored on flood control projects under the plan.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...