Renoites who walk, run or bike along a 14-mile portion of the Steamboat Ditch trail are worried the next generation of the 150-year-old path will resemble a barren moonscape with restricted public access.
“Four generations of our family have enjoyed the Steamboat Ditch trail for many years,” Valerie Cooke, who lives in the Skyline neighborhood, wrote in a post on a dedicated group on the nextdoor website. “The Tom Cooke Trail at Mayberry Park is named in my late father’s honor, as he was an early advocate for keeping the ditch trail open for recreational use back in the 1990s. So many of us have enjoyed the wildlife, vegetation, and beauty of the waterway and oppose efforts to enclose it.”
At issue is a plan to convert some or all of a 14-mile urban section of open ditch into a covered pipeline and make other changes. The ditch company and local agencies are just beginning a legally-required process to secure up to $25 million in federal dollars to make flood mitigation improvements, upgrade the ditch’s infrastructure and achieve other goals.
Because most of the nearby residents didn’t get wind of the proposal until the public comment period was about to end, planners have extended the deadlines for comments to Feb. 16 and plan a second public comment meeting using Zoom whose details are not yet determined.
Residents weren’t notified
A spokeswoman for the firm involved in the planning process said the lack of public notification was caused by unexplained delays of most the postcards mailed to about 750 residents. She said people who use the path for recreation have jumped to conclusions, feeding a storm of “misinformation and suppositions” on social media.
“There’s no forgone conclusion that a closed pipe is the option that they are going to go with,” said Elizabeth Spaulding of the Idaho-based Langdon Group, a conflict-management firm. “The purpose of (the public comment process) is to solicit comments from agencies, local governments and the public. We’re collecting information about issues and concerns.”
She said that planners will look at a range of alternatives that don’t include a pipe and look at mitigation strategies for reducing any adverse impacts. “It’s a multi-year process and we have just put our toe on the starting line,” she said. “I think that’s where there is a lot of confusion. Everyone thinks that we’re going to put a pipe in the canal, but that’s not decided yet. It’s one alternative among many.”
Covered pipeline pushed
Public records of previous local meetings about the federal grants show that a covered pipeline was the main – and sometimes the only – option mentioned. Some residents interviewed for this story fear that the ditch company already has a plan in mind and is only going through the motions of soliciting the public comments that are necessary to secure the federal money, a process administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
“I hate to make a general statement, but in a lot of these projects the NRCS promotes the interests of a fairly small number of landowners and (they) benefit a small number of stakeholders,” said Jerry Wager of Reno, a retired environmental program manager who has years of experience with federal projects. “It’s a public process, so let’s see how this one plays out… I can’t help but wonder if there is a hidden agenda that isn’t being discussed.”
The proposal to secure federal money for ditch improvements surfaced at a Washoe County Water Conservation District meeting on Aug. 18, 2020. That panel, which was created in 1929, is composed of representatives of Truckee Meadows’ ditch companies and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, the area’s water provider. It is now the sponsoring agency for the Steamboat project.
Alternatives weren’t discussed
Michael Pagni, an attorney with the McDonald Carano law firm in Reno who represents the Steamboat Canal and Irrigation Company, was the first speaker at the Aug. 18 meeting, according to the meeting minutes. Pagni noted that Steamboat has qualified for a federal grant of up to $25 million “to improve agricultural water management by converting open channel canals to pipe.”
The minutes show that other aspects of the proposed project, including funding, flood mitigation and the environmental assessment process, were discussed, but no alternatives to a pipeline conversion were mentioned.
Pagni, in an interview Jan. 15, said that piping the canal is “one of the options being looked at, not the only one, but may not be the one that wins out at the end of the day.” He said the process involves “analysis, receiving input from the public, stakeholders, cooperating agencies.” All of those things will be considered, he said, to “figure out what is the best and most feasible and most practical approach to address the problems that we’re facing.”
‘Everybody was aware’
He said alternatives to a pipeline weren’t mentioned at the August meeting because “my recollection is that everybody (at the meeting) was aware that there were multiple options on the table.” He noted that no members of the public were in attendance, but “it was understood there were multiple options on the table.”
At a Zoom meeting for public comment held on Dec. 8, the benefits of converting the ditch in the Caughlin Ranch area also were discussed because that method has the potential to mitigate flooding and reduce seepage from the now-unlined canal. Early in the planning process, speakers noted, it was decided to focus improvements on 14 miles of the canal in the urban areas of the 34-mile waterway rather than in the more rural areas.
At the end of that meeting, Ben Volk, vice president of J-U-B Engineers, the firm administering the grant application, told participants that in terms of possible actions, “we really have no preference. We’ve wiped the slate clean.” He said the options submitted in the funding application “may not be the ones we select. We’re looking for ideas.”
Volk said that a pipeline, lining sections of the ditch with concrete or changing the route of the canal in flood-hazard areas are among possible options. The planning documents are available online.
Conflict vs. coincidence
The Washoe County Water Conservation District Aug. 18 approved a contract with J-U-B Engineers to handle the reporting and administration of the grant program. At the meeting, a commissioner asked whether there was any conflict of interest “with Shayne Dyer already being under contract with the district funneling this work to his own company?” (Dyer’s Reno-based firm had merged with the Idaho-based J-U-B about 18 months ago, according to project planners.)
Pagni, the lawyer for the district. said the Steamboat and Orr ditch companies are working “with Dyer/J-U-B to facilitate this grant, (It’s) more of a coincidence than a conflict.” Nevada law (NRS 539.081) prohibits all directors and other officers of irrigation districts from being directly or indirectly interested in any contract awarded by the board or in the profits to be derived from the contract.
On Jan. 15, Pagni explained that because Dyer isn’t a director or officer of the district, the law isn’t applicable.
The NEPA process
A wave of objections
“There’s a beauty and a majesty about the Steamboat Ditch and the trail as it exists right now. It follows the terrain. There’s a quietness and calmness about it as it exists right now. If we can maintain that, maintain that ecosystem, birds, animals and trees, that should be a priority. Keep those things as well as achieve the goals (of the project). I’m not afraid of change, but not at the cost of destroying those things. It’s so important to the community, so let’s do everything we can to try and save it.”– Gregg Stokes of Reno, who lives adjacent to the ditch and trail, in an interview Jan. 15.
A sidebar to this story features pictures of the Steamboat Ditch and trail taken by south Reno residents who frequent the trail.
Residents interviewed for this story and many more who commented on social media in the wake of the Dec. 8 meeting said they first heard about the project after that meeting and just a week or so before the initial Jan. 15 deadline for public comments. Once alerted to the plan, scores of people made their objections known on social media sites and to the planners.
Spaulding, the contact person for the project, was deluged with phone calls and emails. She received 1,100 emails and scores of phone messages by Jan. 15 and is “making sure everyone is caught up to speed” on the planning process, she said.
“We saw that there is a community voice that really values the open canal… We want people to know there’s a range of alternatives. The trail was not necessarily part of this project, but we’re getting a lot of comments and that is something that will be explored. People are opposing a project that hasn’t taken its full form yet. We need to make sure we’re working with the community to develop this project.”— Elizabeth Spaulding, project spokeswoman.
Critic worries ‘the fix is in’
Gregg Stokes, who is president of the Caughlin Creek Homeowner’s Association, said he’s concerned that discussions of the project so far are steeped in generalities with few specifics. Problems with flooding, seepage, health concerns, water quality and other factors are mentioned by the planners, but it’s unknown how extensive those things are. He said he is concerned that those things will be cited as the rational for extensive changes to the canal and that “the fix is in” for converting the urban portions of the ditch into a buried, gravel-covered pipeline or concrete box.
“We hear about potential for this and that, but have very few facts,” Stokes said. He doesn’t doubt there are problems in some areas near the ditch, but wants to see a focused approach rather than a blanket solution to those problems. “It’s more than a question of getting water from point A to point B,” he said.
“Right now, we hear a lot of potentiality and very few facts. A whole ecosystem has grown up around that canal for 150 years. They need to design a system that addresses the concerns, but keeps the flora and fauna alive. The project can do good for the ecosystem and the trail users as well. It can do double duty.”
Stokes said he also is fascinated by the history of the canal and that legacy also should be respected. Finding ways to use the trail as an educational as well as recreational resource could be a part of the project, he said.
Built by Chinese laborers
Chinese laborers built the 34-mile Steamboat Ditch in the 1870s. The project cost $40,000 and the canal opened in July 1880. The trail along the ditch is an easement used for maintenance by the ditch company, but the land it crosses is owned by individual property owners. For decades, much of the easement has been used as an unofficial trail by residents for hiking, biking, running and bird watching.
The waterway flows from a diversion structure on the Truckee River at the California/Nevada border and winds its way through Reno to connect to Steamboat Creek near Rhodes Road south of Mount Rose Highway by Virginia Street. The creek flows north from there and connects with the Truckee River near East Greg Street in Sparks. The ditch carries water five months of the year to about 1,530 acres and 500 landowners, according to the canal company.
A detailed official map of the entire length of the canal that shows property owners and publicly accessible sections of the trail from the dam to the end of the pathway at Manzanita Lane isn’t readily available.
Waterway crosses private land
Kevin Joell of Reno, who uses the trail, recently mapped the ditch from “Hole in the Wall” near the Truckee River diversion to Manzanita Lane – a distance of about 12 miles. His research indicates that about 5.3 miles of the easement has legally-protected public access. The remaining 6.6 miles crosses approximately 85 private parcels. Each one would have to grant or sell an easement to protect public access into the future, the researcher concluded.
Over the years many sections of the ditch have fallen into disrepair. Some residents close to the canal often suffer flooded basements and section of the ditch overflowed in January 2017. The potential benefits of the project, according to the planning documents, include improving water quality to tributaries of the Truckee River, increasing water conservation, minimizing flood risks from a potential canal breach and eliminating the potential for people and animals to fall into the open canals.
Balancing benefits, costs
Some of the residents who use the ditch said they understand that there are problems that need to be solved, but not at the expense of the ecosystem, the beauty and accessibility of the trail that runs along it.
Wager, the retired program manager, said that if an “honest cost-benefit analysis” is done, weighing the specific benefits against “valuing what is to be lost, it might be very hard to justify it going forward.” He said in his experience, many such federally-funded projects benefit a small number of landowners and “as long as they fly under the radar they can make it to construction. Let’s hope this isn’t one of them.”
Spaulding said the planning process will be transparent and that all comments will be considered.
“There have been no decisions about what and where specifically this project is going to address,” she said. “It’s at the very beginning stages and there will be a wide range of alternatives. The solutions could be a pipeline, but we’re ready to be creative and see what can be done.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was corrected Jan. 18 at 12:30 p.m. to substitute a map of public access portions of the trail with a previous map showing the trail.