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Soaked Nevada city starts drying out

Some in Fernley say the Truckee Canal hasn't been properly kept up.

January 07, 2008|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

FERNLEY, NEV. — The water ravaged the Crimson Road neighborhood. It punched in windows, buckled pavement, dug a 7-foot-deep gulch. It barreled over Tony Ebert's redwood fence and hurled his shed across the yard.

Calf-deep in brown water on Sunday, he wondered: How could this happen again?

When 50 feet of the Truckee Canal gave way the day before and sent 1,500 people fleeing the frigid deluge, it became the second time in a little more than a decade that a breach in the waterway had inundated this community east of Reno.

The early morning flood washed over two square miles and damaged about 290 homes, city officials said. Though no injuries were reported, authorities needed helicopters and pontoon boats to rescue people stranded by up to 8 feet of water.

The catastrophe was reminiscent of a 2004 dirt levee break along the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta near Holt, Calif., which forced more than 300 people to flee and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to buildings and crops.

On Sunday, Nevada authorities focused on drying out Fernley's neighborhoods. Though pools that had frozen overnight complicated their efforts, they said they expected to be finished by Tuesday. Power had been restored to most homes, and federal disaster aid officials were surveying the area.

The cause had not been determined, though some officials suspect animals weakened the canal bank by tunneling into it.

"This was something that occurred in a spot where no one expected it to occur," said Jeffrey S. McCracken, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the canal. "If there was a way to foresee what was going to happen, something would have been done about it."

But on Crimson Road, residents yanking out carpet and discarding mud-stained sofas complained that officials had done little to prevent the break.

"This isn't rain-related," said John Prosser, 58, sloshing through the muck to help his friend Ebert. "This is idiot-people-related."

Prosser's garage was among the dozens of Fernley structures soaked in a 1996 breach of the century-old canal, which irrigates the region's alfalfa fields.

After that, Prosser said, he had hoped the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, which manages the canal, might strengthen it with concrete. That never happened.

Meanwhile, the city -- whose Main Street is dotted with banners proclaiming "Fernley Stands United" -- boomed. In 2001, it incorporated to cope with a population that has now more than doubled to 20,000.

Many of the waterlogged homes are relatively new, and adjacent lots are lined with bulldozers and signs for subdivisions.

Ebert, 44, moved into his white home with blue trim about eight years ago. Saturday, he discovered it was surrounded by a rising moat after he heard a boom: his shed slamming into the house. He and his wife stuffed clothes and towels under the front door to fend off the water, but it got in through vents.

He was hauling out his son's school books and his family's clothes Sunday -- their dryer had stopped working. His knee-high rubber boots sank into the mud caked on his driveway. Like many people on Crimson Road, Ebert has no flood insurance.

"The cost of fixing this" -- he gestured down the street -- "is going to be way more than the cost of putting in concrete" on the canal.

Over the years, officials have talked about fortifying the canal, said City Manager Gary A. Bacock, "but improvements cost money, and money is a battle. A lot of the time it comes down to how much it costs today."

After the last flood, he said, developers building homes near the canal were required to pay to widen it. A more immediate problem, officials said, is the fact that beavers and gophers burrow into the earthen canal's walls. When the canal's volume increases -- as it did in recent days -- water can punch through the weakened spots.

Animals are such a problem that the irrigation district spends about $10,000 a year in small rewards to people who bring in beaver and gopher tails, said Dave Overvold, the district's project manager.

District officials visually inspect the canal once a year and monitor measurement devices, which can show whether water is seeping out.

But Martha G. VanGeem, a principal engineer at Illinois-based CTL Group, which assesses damaged structures, said that was probably not enough. A canal with rodent problems, she said, is best checked monthly.

"If it's broken twice now," she said, "that should be two red flags."


Times researcher John Tyrrell contributed to this report.

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