Reno Flood Plain
Do you ever wonder where water goes? When it rains, it flows off your house, it flows down your driveway and along your street and into storm drains. Do you ever wonder where it goes from there?
Living in the Truckee Meadows you can be sure that the majority of it ends up in ditches, sloughs, streams, creeks and rivers. But when there is too much of it, what happens then?
When there is too much water it ends up being stored on a flood plain. The Truckee River has a pinch point where I-80 goes through the canyon where the Virginia Range and the Pah Rah Range meet. Its called the Vista Reef (or Narrows). If there is too much water, and a flood event occurs, this causes water to back up into the flood plain.
The last remaining flood plain available for flood storage is the UNR Main Station Field Laboratory, the Rosewood Lakes Golf Course, and the Butler Ranch North. This totals about 1600 acres.
In addition to the Truckee River (which runs west to east) flooding, the Steamboat Creek (which runs south to north) runs right through these areas of UNR, RLGC and Butler Ranch, and has its own historical flood
events. There are about eight creeks and one slough that drain into Steamboat Creek, so water that falls in the hills eventually ends up draining to upper south east Reno.
Those of us who surround, and live in, the last of the flood plain in upper south east Reno have come together to work on saving our "protection" (which is the flood plain). By the way, it's not just our protection, its protection for the entire Truckee Meadows.
There have been many development projects in this area over the years. Many that should never have been built. Almost all with no mitigation onsite to protect existing residents and business from the displacement of the water that was once stored there.
The Upper South East Communities Coalition has concerns about the waterways of the area. At least one has Mercury Contamination that could be detrimental to the environment if disturbed.
Zoning Map Amendments
When the Reno City Council changes zoning, developers ask (usually) for a zoning map amendment. One of the requirements, or "findings" for a zoning map amendment is:
"Zoning Map Amendment: General zoning map amendment requirements, (f). To protect life and property in areas subject to floods, landslides and other natural disasters"
There is no ambiguity in that statement. There is no “open to interpretation”. “To protect life and property in areas subject to floods”. That is what it says. In the entire Truckee Meadows, there are no greater areas “subject to floods” then the area of upper south east Reno.
The Recent History
Its 1966 and the Truckee Meadows is a very different place. There is a vision for a road. A highway really. It’s not needed or necessary at this time but they put it in the Master Plan for the future.
Flood of 1986
Fast-forward 20 years, people are again talking about this road. Is it needed
It is 1986 and the area is experiencing a growth spurt. Reality comes knocking. In March of 1986 a major flood hits the Truckee Meadows. A man in Sparks is killed in the North Truckee Drain. Sparks is flooded in all the usual places in the industrial areas. But, this time, it also floods around Baring Blvd , Shadow Lane , and Howard Dr . Areas of Sparks that are not yet developed like Sparks Blvd by Disc Drive, the area that is now Los Altos Pkwy all the way out to the what is now Red Hawk in Wingfield Springs and the area where the Legends now sits. All flooded.
Steamboat Creek in Reno is also over-flowing it banks. There is no Double Diamond, Damonte Ranch, Rosewood Lakes, Roseview, and Hidden Meadows. Flood waters inundate the UNR Main Station Field Laboratory on McCarran by Mill. Water is also on the Butler Ranch North. There are few warehouses or commercial properties across the street from the MSFL between Mill and Pembroke along the eastern edge of the airport at this time; all these areas are flooded.
But, this flood captures the attention of some people. These people start to question any kind of development in the flood plain. The flood plain that Mother Nature uses to store flood waters. These flood plains are starting to disappear in the Truckee Meadows faster than people can be educated on the loss of such valuable land.
The flood waters recede and the clean up starts and finishes. You can’t tell that a major flood happened and someone died.
So the entities that make these decisions move forward. Development resumes. The Master Plan is changed many times in the years following. Some people are still working to try and get responsible flood plain management to be a priority in this town. But development brings revenue. Memories of the decision makers become shorter. The flood plains are prime land.
Approvals are given and rapid growth starts in the late 80’s to mid 90’s. Commercial properties are going up east of the airport with no mitigation for flood waters; houses are built along the North Truckee Drain south of Baring and north of Prater, again no real mitigation for flood waters.
Roseview, Rosewood Lakes and others along the Steamboat Creek are approved and start building. All are guaranteed that they are safe. Rosewood Lakes Golf Course is designed and built to hold flood waters in flooding events. We are told that mitigation has been done to make sure that all people within these developments are protected from flooding. People found their dream houses. They moved in and started families. They loved the neighborhoods, the schools and the surrounding areas. City Councils would not have approved anything that was not safe, right?
Master Plan Amendment
It’s now 1996, that road that we were talking about is being brought into the conversation more and more. Some people are still hopefully trying to save what is left of the flood plain. Legitimate concerns are being brushed aside. Where is the water going to go during the next flood? And there will be a “next flood”. Are Councils and Commissions really considering the safety and welfare of residents and businesses that are already in the flood plain when they approve yet more projects?
Approvals have been given to start the build out of Double Diamond, Spanish Springs, Red Hawk, Wingfield Springs, and Pyramid Hwy. All flood plains, wetlands and open spaces that are being plowed under.
While not in the flood plain, building starts in Arrowcreek, more building begins in the Caughlin Ranch area, the Mae Anne/Robb Drive areas, up above Lakeside in the Ridgeview area. All new impervious surfaces that will send water faster into storm drains because the ground is no longer available to absorb water. Where does that water go? It will all eventually end up in upper southeast Reno.
In 1996 that road is in many conversations. RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) had hired an engineering company. That company did studies and wrote a report on that road. The report stated that, due to the dangers to the surrounding communities and the threat of significant flooding, and more importantly to them, the cost, the section of road between Mira Loma and Pembroke should be removed from the Master Plan. It should be eliminated from this project.
The RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) presented this report to the City Council and they unanimously approved a Master Plan Amendment, abandoning the road between Pembroke and Mira Loma due to the expense of mitigation of wetlands and for the safety of the surrounding residents. So, RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) staff recommended to the RTC Board for a right-of-way abandonment for a section of this road citing cost, feasibility and environmental concerns and the RTC Board ultimately obtained the right-of-way abandonment from the City of Reno in June of 1996. In effect, “eliminating a proposed major arterial road” from Mira Loma to Pembroke. That Master Plan Amendment is still in effect to this day.
Flood of 1997
Then came January 1, 1997. That day and the next four days would change everything.
There was a catastrophic flood. A man in Reno died when he drove into a parking lot to check on his warehouse and could not see that the parking lot had been washed into the river.
Almost everything south of I-80, east of 395, north of Peckham; and then most everything around the Boynton Slough east to the foothills; the entire Bella Vista Ranch North and South down south into Double Diamond and, everything surrounding, and east of Steamboat Creek was under a significant amount of water. Lastly, water broke through under I-80 and started filling the old Helms Pit. Water filled that pit more than 2/3rds full. It is now called the Sparks Marina. It is no longer available to hold flood waters.
Water rose rapidly, but lingered for days. Depending on where you were, water could have been up to six feet deep. Eastside Subdivision, one of the oldest in the actual flood plain, had 100% flooding in all of their homes at an average level of three feet. As one long time resident tells it, he opened the front door then walked over and opened the back door and let the water flow through. There is only one way in and one way out of that community. They are a rural unincorporated community of Large Lot Residential homes with livestock allowances. Evacuation was hectic, chaotic, dangerous, scary, and in the dark.
The lower parts of Hidden Valley had so much water that residents were still using canoes four days later to get to their houses. One house burned to the water line in the middle of the flood. A gas can overturned in the garage and spilled. Then that contaminated water reached the pilot light on the water heater.
It was discovered that the Rosewood Lakes developer had miscalculated the elevation for the fill and the houses were one foot lower than they were suppose to be. Houses surrounding the Golf Course had devastating crawl space damage and all insulation, duct work and electrical had to be replaced. Roseview had significant damage to crawl spaces and some homes flooded completely. Some Donner Springs residents had significant flood damage on both sides of McCarran.
There was significant and catastrophic commercial flooding in the Sparks Industrial Area. Business busting flooding. There was devastating flooding along Mill St. and in the commercial properties between east McCarran and the airport. The Airport itself was a sea of water and the (now) Grand Sierra Resort was surrounded with water.
Eventually it was determined that damages from the Communities of Truckee to Pyramid Lake were about $800 million dollars. Very few people at that time had flood insurance.
The communities of Reno, Sparks and Washoe County came together. This must not happen again! We must find a way to protect these areas or businesses will leave. Residents will have an added burden of significant flood insurance, we must help! We must help! We must help! The Truckee River Flood Project is born shortly after.
How quickly they forget
It’s 2004. There is a development BOOM going on in the Truckee Meadows. It’s been 7 years since the 97’ flood. There is a flood project; however infighting, costs, the feds, and other factors are dragging it down. It seems stagnant. It’s been a long time since the 97’ flood.
Remember, memories are short.
"Protect the Protection" (or not)
One thing is very clear. Decisions have been made by the Cities of Reno and Sparks, Washoe County and the Army Corps of Engineers that the UNR Main Station Field Laboratory and the rest of the remaining open flood plain in the area will be designated flood storage for the safety of the entire Truckee Meadows. That ends up being a false sense of security. The Truckee River Flood Project has no powers to put teeth in that statement. They can only make recommendations. Ultimately it is up to each Council or Commission to enforce or uphold that designation.
The Butler Ranch North comes up for a Master Plan Amendment to change the zoning to allow, at the time, 1500 homes and one section of that six lane road on 300 acres. What? The Butler Ranch North had four feet of water on it for almost a week in 1997. It also had up to four feet of water in some places for over four days in 2006. Where would that water go if it no longer had that land to sit on? Into the surrounding communities?
Developers had plans to make sure the Butler Ranch North development did not flood. All they were required to do for the surrounding residents is to make sure they did not flood worse. That’s the minimum the law requires. A movement is born.
In 2006 the housing market started to slide. The Butler Ranch North is not sold, however, the City Council, in its infinite wisdom, approves all the entitlements and the Handbook for a future developer to come along and complete. On a critical portion of the flood plain, on land that is designated flood storage for the safety of the entire Truckee Meadows, they approve almost 1300 houses and a six lane highway. That land still holds those entitlements to this day.
Development at all costs!
Since 1997, greedy development has prevailed.
Now there is Arrowcreek, Mt. Rose Hwy has become a multi lane mega road and everything around Wedge Pkwy is built out. Double Diamond is sprawling, Damonte Ranch is growing and most of the flood plain south of the Narrows is gone.
The flood plains of north Sparks have been severely decimated. Wingfield Springs, Spanish Springs, Pyramid Hwy have many new streets, roofs, sidewalks and driveways. Mae Anne, Robb Drive, Somerset etc. are all new impervious surfaces where water no longer absorbs into the ground, but is channeled into storm drains and into the Truckee and other ditches, creeks, sloughs etc and ends up flooding the flood plain of upper south east Reno. And the City of Reno is eager to cover more of it with houses and asphalt. They tell us that we are safe. They tell us that they have “mitigated” any problems. We begin our own research.
What we find is terrifying.
Knowledge is power
In 2005, collectively, we had already spent over a year learning more than we ever wanted to know about flood plains, flooding, methyl mercury, arsenic and the road that had been on the books for 40 years. It had many incantations through the years. The Tahoe Pyramid Link was the first. The Southeast Connector is the most commonly used today.
We found out that since records started being kept in 1864 there have been 15 - 100 year floods on the Truckee River or Steamboat Creek or both. We average one every 10-15 years. We are over due.
We found historical flood documents and pictures that were horrifying as they proved that all the water has always ended up in upper south east Reno and the Sparks Industrial Areas (which back at the turn of the last century was called the Glendale District and had cattle pens by the railroad tracks). Any size flood has a one percent chance of happening in any given year. The numerical number attached to a flood usually indicates the size of a flood, not that it is only suppose to happen once in whatever year is given.
In the past, lower south east Reno (the South Meadows areas) also had significant flooding. It stored massive amounts of water. We will have to wait and see what happens during the next 100 year flood. Will the developer’s mitigation protect just that area? Will the mitigation make the Donner Springs area flood worse?
During the New Years 2005/2006 flood event, that was only about a 50 year flood on the Truckee but it was a 100 year flood on Steamboat Creek. Imagine if they had both been 100 year (which is very common). Developers of the South Meadows area had seemed to fix a portion of their flooding problems by channeling the Steamboat Creek water north into the Butler Ranch North area. Remember, where water sat for days? This was happily approved by the City of Reno.
Again, 2006 showed almost no flooding in South Meadows (where there used to be a significant amount of flood storage), however due to the channeling of Steamboat Creek, the Butler Ranch North had standing water on it for about four days, the Rosewood Lake Golf Course was a massive lake, and 300 sheep died from drowning on the UNR Main Station Field Laboratory. Apparently they did not have enough "notice" to get their animals to the “Dairy Island” that they normally store livestock on during flood events, even though the flood warnings were out for several days before.
This was a relatively minor flood on the Truckee because this was a primarily a creek and ditch flood. This 100 year flood on Steamboat Creek showed the patterns of water were very different this time. Water seemed to be more than it should have been, and in places not seen before. Some communities, like those around Huffaker, reported that they did not flood in 97’ yet during this event they had moderate flooding issues. There was a lake at Longley and McCarran, and moderate flooding on Rio Poco Dr .
Sales of Right of Ways Diminish Flood Storage
Let’s go back to that Golf Course. Rosewood Lakes Golf Course. The one that was designed and built specifically to hold flood waters for the safety of the surrounding communities? In 2011 the City of Reno sold the right of way through ½ of that Golf Course to RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) for this road. However, they have not specifically said that the monies acquired from that sale will be used to rebuild the 9 holes (or as we call it, limited flood storage) that will be lost. There was much talk about that money going into the general fund. In October of 2014, one month before the local elections that would change the Reno City Council, that Council voted to spend the golf course money to pay down debt, thereby hamstringing the new council into having find the money to pay back RTC should the new council decide to protect the surrounding communities from the massively destructive project and tell RTC that they could not have their road through the wetlands, floodplain and open spaces.
Keep in mind, that there is a Master Plan Amendment of Abandonment of the Southeast Connector, which is still in effect at this time, between Mira Loma and Pembroke, which includes the Rosewood Lakes Golf Course. Another right of way that has been recently acquired for the Southeast Connector is 165 acres of the UNR Main Station Field Laboratory. UNR is dismantling this land and selling each parcel to the highest bidder to pay off some debt and to build a new student building. Forget that UNR is the only Agriculture College in the entire State that is made up of 2/3rds Agriculture. Forget that students from this state, who want to study Agriculture, now have to go to California or Utah or Idaho. Forget that some of the best land to teach Agriculture that UNR has is the MSFL. Forget that a significant economy of the future is how we get our food; that Field Laboratory, the Rosewood Lakes Golf Course and the Butler Ranch North are the last available 1500 acres to store flood waters that we have. As of the printing of this, RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) has not acquired right of way through the Butler Ranch North yet. But we know they are working on it.
Since 1966 when this road was first envisioned, we have lost over 22,000 acres of flood plain. The question that we here in upper south east Reno ask every time a project is approved is….where are you going to put all the water? Sparks Mayor Martini was on a local news program over the winter of 2012/2013. When asked about the Flood Project, he states that one of the benefits for Sparks is going to be to move the North Truckee Drain. He goes on to state that will send most of the water that floods Sparks, to the south. And what is south? The last available flood plain where they are now planning on putting a six lane highway.
Phase I and Phase II
RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) has approvals to move forward and has subsequently completed, Phase I (the bridge from Greg St to Cleanwater Way) of a road that is, in our opinion, dangerous to residents and commercial properties. Everything east of the Airport and south of the river, if the project is built, will be reassessed by FEMA and the Flood Insurance Rate Map (the FIRM) will be adjusted to accommodate the added development in the flood plain. This could significantly add a financial burden to both residents and commercial properties all around in the area.
On the morning of April 15, 2015 the Army Corps of Engineers approved the Clean Water 404b Permit for the Southeast Connector Road project, Phase 2, to be built by the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County.
When RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) applied for their first permit in July of 2011, there was no Phase I or Phase II. It was all one project. So to try and compel approval for the rest of the project from the Army Corps of Engineers, they separated the project into two Phases and started to build Phase I without getting their permit for Phase II.
The McCarran Widening Project from Longley Lane to Greg Street has just completed Phase 2, which is Longley to Mira Loma. That widening has improved the minor wait time that occurred from Longley to Mira Loma. The widening project is only .03 miles from where they want to put the Southeast Connector. Two major six lane roads that are so close together that from space they should look like one road.
Traffic projections are not, and may never be, what they were in 2004-06 due to the down turn in the economy. Years ago there were many other alternatives for the Southeast Connector. But with a single minded determination the City of Reno followed only this one path. The one that ends at Greg St and Sparks Blvd , right by the Alamo Truck Stop. Where, if memory serves, Mayor Cashell's family has interests.
To be very clear, McCarran’s traffic problem is not southeast McCarran in Reno, it is east McCarran in Sparks. Between Glendale and Prater there are seven traffic lights in (1) one mile. Instead of spending the last 20 years working on that problem, the solution seems to be to raise, significantly, the danger to southeast Reno by building the Southeast Connector. Why is that okay?
RTC’s (Regional Transportation Commission) plan is to build a “floodable” road in the heart of the remaining flood plain. Their plan is to use heavily contaminated soil (with methyl mercury) as fill under this "floodable" road. Due to rapidly moving flood waters, after every flood event, the Southeast Connector will have significant damage that taxpayers will have to fund to repair. Like was stated previously, we have a major flood event every 10-15 years. Taxpayers will have to pay to rebuild the Southeast Connector so often that, the potential is there, to have costs be almost like building a new road every decade. Then there will be the environmental disaster of the release of the methyl mercury into homes, businesses and schools.
When this alignment came up for a vote at RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) in 2008, two members of the five member Board voted against it. The first because the alignment was fluid and there was no firm location. The second is because the Southeast Connector is going to be over $250 million dollars. Most likely the second most expensive five miles of road after the Galena Bridge through Pleasant Valley. (Why? Because they are putting a six lane road in a FEMA "floodway" where all the local governments are planning on storing flood waters and environmentally this is a very sensitive area). He stated that much money could be better used for other projects. Together, the McCarran Widening, Phase I of the SEC-Bridge Portion and the remainder of the five mile stretch of the Southeast Connector is going to cost taxpayers over $350 million dollars. If they come in on budget!
The Flood Project
In 2004, the Truckee River Flood Project had come up with a beautiful plan. A plan that would offer protection for up to a 117 year flood from just above Reno to Pyramid Lake. There was going to be benching instead of entirely flood walls and levees. There was going to be recreational areas along the river that would rival anything anywhere in the country. Soccer fields and baseball diamonds and amphitheaters. Things that could flood with minimal impacts. The estimated costs in 2006 were 1.2 billion dollars. Half to be paid by the federal government and half to be contributed by the local population. It was a constant struggle to get people who do not live in the flood plain to understand the benefit to the entire community of having such a plan. Not just in recreation but, industries would have significantly less or almost no flooding. The airport would remain open during flood events. Infrastructure would not be damage or closed. Homes could be saved.
There was also a struggle to convince the feds to pony up that much money. After all, we are not New Orleans. So in 2011/2012 the Corps came back and said they would only contribute for a 50 year plan that is mostly flood walls and levees along the river. During a meeting at that time, we were told that due to these flood walls and levees that will mostly protect the Sparks Industrial areas, that would mean that flood waters would go into land south of the river. Into the UNR Main Station Field Laboratory. Where they want to put this six lane highway. We are told that a 100 year flood will now have 117 year water because of these flood walls and levees.
In June of 2013 the Army Corps of Engineers released the Draft Environmental Impact Study and the General Reevaluation Report which were both very frightening. First, they confirmed that the plan is targeted to save the Sparks Industrial Areas north of the Truckee River, and the Airport west of McCarran. However their plan is to funnel all that water that previously went to those locations into the UNR Main Station Farm (or whats left of it) which in turn will flood the Rosewood Lakes Golf Course (or whats left of it) and the Butler Ranch North (or whats left of it). They are telling us that there will be 7 to 12 inches of additional water in these areas. And, critically, they did not include the Southeast Connector road with their studies. The six lane highway which will be over 150 feet wide, and 5 1/2 miles long and bisect their entire flood storage was not in there. Claimed it was not built yet.
Last, an issue that is being ignored is WC-3. In 2008 Washoe County overwhelmingly approved that Washoe County could not develop beyond sustainable water. Sustainable water projections are about 250,000 people less than RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) is claiming will be in this valley by 2040. They are using these inflated population numbers as reasons for the Southeast Connector, which by expert estimation, and voter referendum, we don’t have the water for.
For years our collective communities who have been fighting this road, have been labeled by RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) and some members of the press as NIMBY’s (not in my back yard). Of course we are NIMBY’s. We store all the flood waters for the entire Truckee Meadows, live next to and on heavily contaminated soil, live by already mitigated and federally protected, degraded wetlands and piece by piece the powers that be are allowing development on land that is designated flood storage for the safety of the entire Truckee Meadows. So where is the protection for upper south east Reno? Twenty years of irresponsible development in the flood plain and no one is trying to help us not flood. There are over 3000 homes and over 300 businesses here.
Demand a comprehensive flood plain development moratorium from your local governments to stop the insanity of destroying the last areas to store flood waters, which also happen to be the last areas of wetlands. Soon to be destroyed.
If you would like to contribute to a fund to actively try and limit further development in the flood plains and destroy yet more wetlands then:
or mail to
4313 Leeward Lane
Reno, Nevada 89502