State court gets canal case

RENO — In a case pitting farmers against flood victims, a federal judge says a state court should decide whether more water should flow through the irrigation canal that broke in January and flooded nearly 600 homes in Northern Nevada.

Meanwhile, officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation say the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District is “close” to satisfying the requirements necessary for it to safely start raising water levels to meet the area’s agricultural demands.

U.S. District Judge Brian Sandoval had been scheduled Monday to consider a request from dozens of Fernley flood victims to issue a temporary restraining order prohibiting the irrigation district from boosting water flows.

But Sandoval ruled this week that the bureau’s parent Interior Department was correct in arguing that the federal court has no jurisdiction and he ordered the case returned to Lyon County District Court. He made the same ruling in regard to a motion to force the city and the county to clean up mold in flood-damaged homes.

New hearing dates on the two motions at the District Court in Yerington are to be set on Monday.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Bob Hager, a Reno lawyer representing more than 100 flood victims in the case that began in Washoe County District Court, was moved to Lyon County, then U.S. District Court and now back to Lyon County.

“On Feb. 14 we filed a motion to have the mold and bacteria cleaned up to prevent a looming health threat and that motion still has not been dealt with in any court,” Hager said Friday.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the 32-mile earthen canal built in 1903, determined burrowing rodents were the primary cause of the Jan. 5 canal break, which led to state and federal disaster declarations.

The irrigation district shut down the canal after the flood until flows resumed last month at 20 percent of capacity, 150 cubic feet per second of a maximum 750 cfs.

At issue is how soon and how much additional water can be returned to the canal, a matter that pits townspeople concerned about the potential for another disaster against farmers and ranchers who depend on the water for their crops and livestock.

The bureau has given the district permission to raise flows in stages to 250 cfs and then 350 cfs once safety measures and monitoring plans are in place.

But lawyers representing more than 100 Fernley residents who are suing the district, the city of Fernley and Lyon County said they want their own experts to independently determine whether the plans are sound enough to risk putting more water in the canal.

The bureau told the district last month that flows can rise to 250 cfs once it has formalized and the bureau has approved: a standard operating procedure for the canal, a facility improvement plan, an emergency action plan, a monitoring program and a maintenance plan. To go to 350 cfs, a special rodent control program also must be fully implemented.

Bureau officials have scheduled a public meeting Tuesday at Fernley High School night to discuss progress.

“We continue to work very closely with the irrigation district to finalize the required documents before we can put more water in the canal. We are close,” said Jeffrey McCracken, regional spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento, Calif.

“Our goal is to get the canal operating safely up to 350 cfs and then even higher once some fairly significant modifications to the levies have occurred.”

McCracken said the pending court case has not affected the bureau’s approach.

“We’re charging ahead to do what we need to do with the water district to get water back in the canal. The court thing is a separate issue,” he said.

Dave Overvold, the district’s project manager for the canal, agreed the two entities are “close” to an agreement.

“We’ve supplied our plans and they are reviewing them,” he said. “We’ve already gone in and plugged with concrete all the (rodent) holes we could see.”

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