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Washoe County, Reno Discuss Options to Address Lemmon Valley Flooding


HESCO barriers, meant to be temporary, have served as levees against flooded Swan Lake for more than two years. Image: Bob Conrad.

By Carla O’Day and Bob Conrad

Closed basin protection measures for the North Valleys were considered Monday with some local politicians calling for a moratorium on development in the flood-prone area of Lemmon Valley during a joint meeting between the Washoe County Commission and Reno City Council.

Lemmon Valley residents packed the county commission chambers, many who said they were hoping their voices would be heard.

Norma Brownell, who’s lived in the Lemmon Valley area for 35 years, said flooding will negatively affect the sale of properties.

County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve listen to frustrated Lemmon Valley residents at a contentious meeting held yesterday to discuss the seemingly never-ending flood concerns in Lemmon Valley. Image: Bob Conrad.
County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung and
Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve listen to frustrated
Lemmon Valley residents at a meeting to
discuss the seemingly never-ending flood
concerns in Lemmon Valley.
Image: Bob Conrad.

“Who would like to buy a house out in Lemmon Valley with all this going on?” Brownell asked. “Everybody just throws up their hands and says, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Tim Jeter, a 20-year Lemmon Valley resident, said it seems local authorities are buffering up the HESCO barriers and hoping nothing happens.

“That’s not good enough,” Jeter said. “We want fixes. We’re tired of driving down a road that partially works and is partially opened.”

TMWA: Two Sources of Water Serving Residents

The Truckee Meadows Water Authority addressed during the meeting concerns raised in a submitted letter to ThisisReno published Friday.

Andy Gebhardt, TMWA’s director of operations and water quality, said that wells in Swan Lake, now underwater because of the flooding, are not being used because getting to the wells is difficult.

“We have the wells out there, and the water quality we have tested an abundant amount of times — more than a hundred samples,” he said.

One well was sealed, but four other wells could be used to provide drinking water.

“They’re not contaminated, the wells themselves were not compromised, it’s just that the access to them is iffy in the middle of the lake,” he added. “Since we have a secondary source of supply, it didn’t seem like a good use of money to keep building roads in the middle of the lake.”

Gebhardt said that residents are getting clean water through TMWA’s Chalk Bluff water treatment plant and the Vidler water project at Fish Springs Ranch.

Unprecedented Water Levels

Water levels at Swan Lake have risen in recent years due to above-average precipitation, causing flooding and property damage. The area averages 7.48 inches of precipitation annually but got almost 17 inches between Oct. 1, 2016 to Sept. 30, 2017, according to a meeting presentation.

The following year (Oct. 1, 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018) was less, but still above average. Since Oct. 1, 2018, precipitation is ahead of the prior year.

“Most smart developers are passing on this area. They know there’s a problem.”

Council member
Jenny Brekhus.

Council member Jenny Brekhus said there’s been too much lip service and not enough movement. She requested the city approve a 1-year moratorium on development in the Lemmon Valley area at that it be put on the next council meeting’s agenda.

“Some people might say that’s anti-development but I disagree,” Brekhus said. “I think there would be some short-term hurt and maybe 100 or 200 residential units might not be able to come in on a 1-year time frame, but in the Reno Master Plan, we have other areas that can pull up the slack and there are a fair amount of projects about to come on anyway. Also, most smart developers are passing on this area. They know there’s a problem.”

Washoe County
Jeanne Herman.

Commissioner Jeanne Herman said elevating homes in the area would be less costly than buying out people who don’t want to move. She also suggested the county consider a moratorium.

Topics brought up by other commissioners and council members included whether emergency federal funds could be obtained, if the Swan Lake area could be made into a park similar to Sparks Marina, better protection for Lemmon Valley Elementary School, an insurance policy for people affected by flooding, and using the area for farming.

Assistant County Manager Dave Solaro said the issue hasn’t been discussed as a local emergency in federal terms, although the county plans to apply for pre-disaster mitigation grants through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Also, Solaro said it’s not known if turning Swan Lake into a recreation area or making it into a park with walking paths is feasible because there are questions about whether it has a long-lasting water source. Agriculture was also discussed as a potential solution.

“We are working with the National Resource Conservation Service to discuss the right type of crop for the soil, what that looks like, the end result of utilizing the highest usage of water crop that we can,” Solaro said. “Certainly as we get down that road, we can narrow down what that crop might be. We will start discussions with the BLM to see if that is useful to them.

“Again, there are costs associated with harvesting a crop, so we want to make sure we’re mindful of all costs associated with growing, but also the harvest.”

Pete Etchart, Washoe County School District chief operations officer, told the commission and council that he’s been in contact with the Lemmon Valley Elementary School principal and has been assured the campus is in good shape.

Next Steps

No official action was taken at the meeting, but both boards supported the creation of a web site regarding planned Lemmon Valley improvements that would provide information and allow visitors to submit questions that would be answered by city or county staff.

Another future meeting between Reno and Washoe County will also be scheduled, this one in the evening, which will allow people who work days to attend.

VIDEO: Interview With Assistant County Manager Dave Solaro in 2017

Carla O'Day
Carla O'Day
Carla has an undergraduate degree in journalism and more than 10 years experience as a daily newspaper reporter. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., moved to the Reno area in 2002 and wrote for the Reno Gazette-Journal for 8 years, covering a variety of topics. Prior to that, she covered local government in Fort Pierce, Fla.