Following a tidal wave of concern from Reno residents and environmental groups, a federal agency has hit the reset button on planning for a project that could convert up to 14 miles of the Steamboat Ditch into a pipeline or encase the open canal within a concrete culvert.
South Reno residents, who for decades have used the easement along the canal as a recreational resource, cheered the announcement from the federal National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that the planning process is on hold.
“This is great news,” said Sandra Obregon, who often takes her three grandchildren for walks on the Steamboat Ditch trail. “It’s a slice of wild nature surrounded by the city; it would be a travesty to turn it into a concrete block… It seemed that everything was being done in a hurry. (The project) needs to be put under a microscope.”
The Steamboat Ditch and Canal Company, sponsored by the Washoe County Water Conservation District, last year received a $935,000 federal grant to be used for project planning. Once environmental requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are met, the project would then be eligible for up to $25 million in federal funding to make flood mitigation improvements, improve water conservation and achieve other goals, according to grant documents.
Pipeline was preferred
Planners initially decided to focus improvements on 14 miles of the canal in the urban areas of the 34-mile waterway. “Converting open channel canals to pipe” was the sole option mentioned during the early phases of the grant application process. Once the public comment period was underway, Ben Volk of J-U-B Engineers, the firm administering the grant application, said the pipeline was one of many options that will be considered.
“We really have no preference; we’ve wiped the slate clean,” he told participants in a public meeting Dec. 8. The options submitted in the funding application “may not be the ones we select. We’re looking for ideas.” A pipeline, lining sections of the ditch with concrete or changing the route of the canal in flood-hazard areas are among possible solutions, he said.
Plan still afloat
Many trail users said they heard about the pipeline proposal weeks after the Dec. 8 virtual public meeting, with the deadline for comments set for Jan. 15. That short notice resulted in a bombardment of objections voiced on social media and in more than a thousand emails and phone comments to the NRCS and local officials. The public comment period was subsequently extended until Feb. 16.
Some residents interviewed for this story initially interpreted the agency’s Feb. 1 announcement as the death knell for the project or as a withdrawal of the federal funding. But it’s a suspension that will be used for re-evaluation, officials said, and the money allocated for the planning process remains available.
Comments still accepted
“The project is not going away, we’re just talking a step back and evaluate making sure it fits the needs of the sponsor while taking in the views of the public and all the (issues) that come up,” said Jose Rosado, state conservation engineer with the NRCS office in Reno. “We need to make sure we have the specifics of the purposes of the project and reasonable alternatives that we can present, so that people can provide feedback.”
The agency is still accepting public comment on the project until Feb. 16 via the methods, below.
Getting ‘ducks in a row’
Rosado said that during and after the Dec. 8 meeting it was obvious that his agency didn’t have enough information to be able to answer residents’ questions about the specifics of the project. The planning documents offered at that meeting remain available online.
“So we’re going to take a step back and take a more internal review of the project and make sure we have the right purpose in place, the right alternatives in place, before we move back into the full planning effort,” he said. “We need to specify what the needs are and what can be done. We have to get our ducks in a row before we engage with the public in that NEPA (environmental review) process.”
The National Resource Conservation Service in Reno has previously worked on projects involving NEPA review, he said, but the Steamboat Ditch proposal is a lot larger in scope. Previously, he said, the agency’s work mostly involved Farm Bill projects on private land. “(Those) are still under NEPA, but it’s a more streamlined process,” Rosado said. “We haven’t done one of these bigger ones in a long time. We need to do a lot more work before we get into this much bigger project.”
Agenda item removed
The Washoe County Water Conservation District is the sponsoring agency for the project. That board is composed of representatives of Truckee Meadows’ ditch companies and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, the area’s water provider. The commission’s sponsorship was on the panel’s agenda Feb. 2 listed as “update, discussion on status… and continued participation” of the project and marked “for possible action.”
During the public comment periods of the meeting, which was held via video teleconference, two residents asked about the status of the project and whether any panel members would benefit directly from the project, should it be constructed. However, the panel had removed the Steamboat update item from the agenda and declined to discuss related issues.
Board won’t respond
A representative of the board said the decision to table the agenda item was made before the meeting.
“Prior to the board meeting, NRCS provided a statement (excerpt, below) regarding the Steamboat project,” wrote Mary Pat Eymann, board spokeswoman. “As a result, the agenda item to discuss the project was pulled at the beginning of the meeting. Public comments were received from two persons, but on advice of counsel and in compliance with open meeting law the board was not able to respond to or engage in discussions on the public comment.”
“In consideration of public comments received to date, and an intent to re-evaluate the feasibility, scope and extent of the project, as well as the effectiveness of the proposed project to meet conservation criteria; and identify the level of technical services that would be required to complete the project, the planning process has been halted at this time,”– from the National Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) announcement, Feb. 1.
“I am so happy that this community cared so much and went to bat for a historic Reno landmark and the plants and wildlife that call it home,” said Garrett Brothers, whose property adjoins the ditch and who has been a leader in the neighborhood opposition to the pipeline plan. “This took effort from the whole community and it delivered.”
He said residents interested in the issue should stay engaged. “It‘s not over,” he said. “We don’t really know what the next steps are; stay vigilant.”
In addition to comments from the public, the NRCS also received letters from environmental groups, which outlined concerns about the project and the planning process. The Sierra Club Great Basin Group’s letter included suggestions about creating a fish passage in the Truckee River diversion dam that feeds the ditch, natural resource protection, flood control, mitigating water loss from the ditch and retaining and enhancing public use of the trail.
The group advocates a careful analysis of all the issues. Members welcomed the suspension of the planning process.
‘An ephemeral waterway’
“It’s a really good reset,” said Lori Bellis, a retired biologist, Sierra Club member and a property owner along the ditch. “We appreciate that NRCS has halted the planning process and is re-evaluating the project scope. Moving forward, I hope the public will be kept informed of what (planners) are trying to accomplish.”
“The Steamboat Ditch has been an ephemeral waterway and green space for more than 100 years. This project should view the ditch in this context and not just as an irrigation delivery system. Although the maintenance road was not originally intended for public recreation, it has been used by the public for recreation for many decades. Consequently, this project needs to take into consideration preserving the recreational and aesthetic aspects of current use. Preservation of the earthen canal where mature vegetation and wildlife habitat exist should be a project priority.”– Lori Bellis, Sierra Club Great Basin Group.
Biologists list species
A group of 13 Reno biologists also submitted a letter of comment to the agency along with a list of species they have observed along the waterway.
“The proposed changes to the water supply along the ditch would eliminate a remarkable ecosystem that has developed over the last 100+ years,” the biologists wrote.
“Without the available water, the vegetation community will change and we will lose the presence of a large number of birds, butterflies, and other animals. The biodiversity in this part of Reno would be significantly reduced, with consequences for neighboring parts of the city as well as for at least one species of federal conservation concern (the monarch butterfly, candidate species under the Endangered Species Act)…”
The biologists’ letter listed more than 100 birds, plants and animals found along the ditch, many of whom are “completely dependent on the water available in this unique ecosystem.”