Once despised Truckee River turns key to Reno's revival

Sunday, September 30, 2001

RENO, Nev. -- For decades, the Truckee River was little more than a downtown drainage ditch. Hotel-casinos once stationed their garbage bins along the riverbank to keep their patrons away from the stream.

It regained the public's attention on New Year's Day 1997, when rainstorms melted the heavy snow pack in the Sierra Nevada and sent a flood down the river from Lake Tahoe. Despite flood control measures, the Truckee swamped downtown Reno and neighboring Sparks and caused $700 million worth of damage.

Today, a proposal to live with the Truckee and restore it to its natural channels and flood plain is being pitched as a way to redevelop the city's core. There are already parks, and one hotel-casino even has a patio overlooking the once-ignored river.

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

The $200 million-plus river restoration proposal will be reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers next year.

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

For years, the Truckee was ignored, except for the legends about new divorcees pitching their wedding rings into the water.

"Northern Nevada used to try to hide the river," said U.S. Sen. John 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."

The new effort has its roots in a wave of public opposition that arose against a 1985 Corps of Engineers flood control plan that included five miles of flood walls and seven miles of levees.

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

The Truckee River runs only about 100 miles, dropping 2,400 feet in elevation as it rushes from Lake Tahoe through downtown Reno and into the high desert at Pyramid Lake. Despite a drought in the region -- Reno has gotten just 2.13 inches of rain in the past year -- there is still enough water in Tahoe to keep the Truckee at a nearly normal flow.

The river has frequently flooded, and in 1950 and 1955 produced "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 the channel, and by removing bedrock that formed a natural bottleneck on the east end of Sparks at an area called the Vista reefs.

In spite of that work, the 1997 flood inundated 7,500 acres.

Since then, a river walk pathway has been built and a new theater complex opened on the downtown riverbank.

A July arts festival revolves around a downtown park with an amphitheater on a small river island. River rafting trips have sprung up and there are proposals for a downtown recreational kayaking course and a minor league baseball park near the river.

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

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