Questions Arise over Federal Aid for Nevada Town Flooded by Canal

January 10, 2008

Building inspectors planned to go door to door this week to assess damage from the flood caused by a break in a century-old irrigation canal, as homeowners face uncertainty over who will help them pay for repairs.

Only one homeowner had a flood insurance policy before an earthen bank of the canal collapsed in this western Nevada town Saturday, pouring a 2-foot wave of water into the community. Water collected 8 feet deep in some areas.

Gov. Jim Gibbons has declared the flooded neighborhood a disaster area, but Michael Karl of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said full-scale federal aid that would allow for grants and low-interest loans to victims is not guaranteed.

“It is not going to be a slam dunk,” Karl said Monday while touring the area.

He said the governor’s request for a disaster declaration from President Bush seemed “marginal,” but he added that there are added factors such as most victims’ lack of flood insurance and the flood’s adverse economic impact on the town 30 miles east of Reno. About 200 houses had varying degrees of flood damage, and half of those had major damage, Karl said.

There’s no question that the bank collapse will lead to lawsuits, said Betsy Rieke, area manager for the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

“I think it’ll be highly litigated,” she told The Associated Press . “We believe the district would be liable.”

Responsibility for the canal still has to be determined.

“The (federal) Bureau of Reclamation owns the canal, but the Truckee Carson Irrigation District manages it,” Jeff Page, Lyon County’s emergency services director, told about 400 residents during a meeting Monday.

“So that’s going to be an issue, who is responsible for what, and that’s an answer I don’t know,” he said. “Hopefully when it comes time to fund it they will look at that it’s a federal property and that will help push the directive to get done.”

Rieke said she and her colleagues at the Bureau of Reclamation are unsure what caused the breach. She said the agency will examine soil and strata samples and look at the last canal rupture — a December 1996 collapse that flooded 60 Fernley homes — for clues.

Ernie Schank, president of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, said he’s aware of at least six previous breaks in the canal. At least three occurred before 1926 when the federal government operated the canal, and three have taken place since, he said.

The 31-mile-long canal takes water from the Truckee River near Reno and delivers it to farms around Fallon, 60 miles east of Reno. The irrigation district’s contract to operate it is renewed every five years and was last renewed in 2007.

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