FERNLEY — Federal water managers are concerned the same deficiencies that caused a century-old irrigation canal to fail and flood the Northern Nevada town of Fernley may plague other earthen embankments that carry water to farmers through nearly 8,000 miles of aging canals across the West.
After an extensive Bureau of Reclamation investigation into the cause of the January breach that flooded nearly 600 homes, officials concluded the poor condition of the irrigation canal that crews started digging with mules and steam shovels in the early 1900s warranted a widespread review of similar canals.
The investigation into the Fernley flood found “evidence of numerous flaws in the embankment,” including berms “riddled” with rodent burrows, some as deep as 25 feet.
Officials concluded the burrows were the main reason the embankment unexpectedly gave way and flooded the growing bedroom community 30 miles east of Reno.
“A whole bunch of really smart engineers spent a lot of time looking at this canal,” said Jeffrey McCracken, regional spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento, Calif.
“I suppose they could do this with a lot of canals throughout the West and come up with maybe the same findings,” McCracken said.
“As a result of this, we are taking a look at our canals with a little more scrutiny. … We have an extremely effective dam safety program, and we are in the process of developing a more aggressive canal safety program.”
The review is no small task. The bureau owns 7,911 miles of canals in 17 Western states, the vast majority of them managed and operated by local irrigation and water districts.
“We will focus initially on canals in those urbanized areas. There’s a lot in the Phoenix area,” McCracken said. “The other real old one out West is up in the Klamath Basin” in Northern California and southern Oregon.
“The tragic situation that occurred on the Fernley canal is an impetus for these other irrigation districts and water districts to get on top of everything they can. And I’m not implying they are not, but let’s go look.”
Driving the new level of concern is the change in demographics across much of the rural West. Just a decade ago, the Truckee Canal ran primarily through farm fields where hundreds of homes now sit.
“Fernley is the perfect example. The canal has been here 100 years, and all the sudden 500 homes get constructed next to it,” McCracken said.
“Ten years ago, had this thing breached, I wouldn’t be here, because it would have gotten somebody’s farm wet,” he said as bureau officials prepared to address about 200 people who gathered last month in Fernley’s high school gymnasium.
Ernie Schank, president of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District that maintains and operates the canal for the bureau, has witnessed dramatic changes in population and development since he was born in nearby Fallon more than a half century ago.
“I have seen this area grow and go from an agrarian society to an urban society,” Schank said.
In 1960, Fernley’s population stood at only 654 compared to about 20,000 today.
“We have to realize that the canal was built in 1903. The standards were not the same then as they would be if you were building a canal through a dense population like has grown up in Fernley,” Schank said.
The team of experts exploring the causes of the Fernley flood found the embankment was compromised by several factors besides rodents.
They also found:
•A lack of maintenance allowed numerous large trees to grow on the banks with root systems that can undermine the canals’ integrity.
•Many of the pipelines out of the canal were constructed by “nontechnical” contractors and individuals “unaware of proper construction techniques.”
•Trespassing laws have not been enforced, allowing ATVs and other off-road vehicles to cause damage to the canal banks.
•Data on geologic exploration of the soils and bedrock beneath the canal is “poor to nonexistent.”
Fixes won’t come cheap, nor soon enough for residents who saw their community declared a state and federal disaster area.
A team of geophysicists, hydrologists, engineers and geologists estimated the cost of repairs to range from $28 million to line one half of the 32-mile-long canal with riprap to $390 million to replace the canal with a 16-foot diameter pipeline.
The canal takes water from the Truckee River, which flows out of Lake Tahoe, south to the melon and alfalfa fields around Fallon. It was shut down after the Jan. 5 failure and, for one of the few times in the past 100 years, sat empty for more than two months while experts examined it.
Some 3,000 water users, mostly farmers and ranchers, depend on the canal for their crops and livestock. Economic studies estimate the value of those goods and related businesses approach $100 million.
On March 14, the bureau reopened the canal but at only 20 percent of maximum levels. It outlined steps the irrigation district must take before it can boost water flow.
Ranchers welcomed the news that the canal was operating again, but dozens of angry townspeople expressed outrage that the bureau would permit any water to flow before new safety measures and procedures were put in place.
“The conditions that caused the levee to break are still there,” Judy Kroshus said. “The only solid spot is where it broke before. Everything else is in the same condition.”
Kroshus is among more than 100 flood victims who have filed class action lawsuits against the irrigation district, the Bureau of Reclamation, the city of Fernley and others. Their lawyers also are seeking a federal court order to restrict water flows in the canal to one-third of the maximum legal operating level.
Kroshus said she and her 2-year-old grandchild were stranded by flood waters before her son waded several blocks to rescue them.
“The water was up to our windshield. We were lucky to get out,” she said.
Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler said he heard the frustration and anger in many people’s voices at the town hall meeting last month.
“It is a devastating situation for our community,” he said. “We want to feel safe. We also need to make sure we have a water supply. The community cannot survive without it.”
Permanent repairs are at least two years away, and that’s only if Congress kicks in tens of millions of dollars or more, said Dave Gore, regional engineer for the bureau.
The canal is part of the Newlands Project, the first irrigation system of its kind in a high desert region that averages only about 5 inches of precipitation a year.
“It brought life to the desert,” Schank said. “Fernley would probably not be here, and Fallon and Churchill County would only be one-third the size if not for the canal.”
Work also began in 1903 on the Salt River Project in the Phoenix area.
“It started out mostly for irrigation for farmers, and the city kind of grew up around it,” said Patricia Cox, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Phoenix area office.
Unlike the Truckee Canal in Nevada, the 1,400 miles of main canals in Arizona are now lined with concrete. Some irrigation ditches are still earthen, however.
The Bureau of Reclamation has launched a pilot program to analyze a small section of the Salt River Project canal to seek ways to expand dam safety measures to canals. But Cox said officials don’t believe the Arizona canals have any of the problems cited in Nevada.
“Some are in fair condition, but most are good; so we don’t have any canals that we would have any concern about.”