RENO -- A federal judge indicated Tuesday that he might order at least a temporary cutback in water flows through an irrigation canal to guard against the threat of another failure like the breach that flooded hundreds of Fernley homes in January.
U.S. District Judge Lloyd George said he would issue an order soon on a request from hundreds of flood victims to freeze water flows over the objections of about 2,000 farmers and ranchers who contend they need more water for crops and livestock.
"I'm concerned about taking a chance and flooding these homes," George said.
George made his comments after more than four hours of testimony from a geological engineer who said the earthen wall of the canal has a buildup of loosely compacted sand and silt that has accumulated over the years and is thus at risk for another failure like the one that occurred Jan. 5.
"I think there is a high probability a failure could occur anywhere in the canal outside the repaired area," said Edward Porter of Reno.
The canal is running at 350 cubic feet per second. Its capacity is 750 cubic feet per second.
George suggested in his questioning of an expert witness and lawyers for both sides that he was leaning toward limiting the flows to no more than 300 cubic feet per second as a temporary measure until the hearing resumes next week.
"Yes, that's what it sounds like," said Bob Hager, a Reno lawyer representing flood victims.
Porter testified as an expert witness on behalf of the flood victims who want to restrict flows in the 105-year-old canal owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and operated by the Truckee Carson Irrigation District.
Bureau officials blamed the breach on rodent holes that weakened the canal's earthen walls. They said that the holes have been filled and that the canal is safe to operate at flows of 350 cubic feet per second, about half of the maximum level.
But Hager and other lawyers for the flood victims contend in lawsuits that experts have concluded the failure was because of "historical negligence" by the bureau and the irrigation district. They want the flows cut back to 150 cubic feet per second until more testing is done.
Hager said the top of the original canal was at ground level and that it remains structurally sound below ground level. But over time, Hager said, the irrigation district dredged material from the canal and piled it on the sides of the canal, forming earthen walls of 6 feet to 8 feet in height.
Porter said Tuesday that approximately 8 feet of sediment had built up in the bottom of the canal. The irrigation district has said the collected sediment had been at heights of 2 feet or 3 feet.
"The sediment has a substantial impact on the capacity of the ditch to carry water flows," Porter said.
The low-density silt piled on the man-made embankment is subject to "landslide failure, seepage or settling," he said.
The embankment is not suited for retaining water and does not have any engineering value, Porter said. "Basically, it's just junk you want to get out of the ditch."
The Bureau of Reclamation has told the irrigation district that water levels will not be allowed to exceed 350 cubic feet per second until alterations to the canal are made.