Reid: Feds to Blame for Canal Breach that Flooded Fernley

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RENO, Nev. (AP) - Sen. Harry Reid charged Thursday that the federal government is to blame for the rupture in an irrigation canal that caused the January flooding of more than 200 homes and millions of dollars in damage in Fernley.

"It is my opinion that it was the negligence of the federal government to have this breach to occur," Reid told reporters during a teleconference from Washington with Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler.

The Nevada Democrat leveled the accusation as he criticized President Bush's proposed spending cuts at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the 105-year-old Truckee Canal that is operated and maintained by the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District under a contract with the bureau.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, vowed to fight those budget cuts, which he said would reduce by 80 percent the spending on the bureau's maintenance and rehabilitation program for the Newlands
Irrigation Project in Nevada and increase the risk of additional canal failures.

"If it broke once, it can break again," he said. "It's a sign of what is going on all around the country. This is a problem we have in America today with our aging infrastructure."

Two lawsuits filed on behalf of Fernley victims allege the irrigation district did not properly maintain the canal and failed to minimize damage once the breach occurred.

But Reid disagreed. "A lot of people can point fingers, but I blame the federal government itself. At this point, I've not found any culpability on
the part of the irrigation district itself," the senator said.

"This federal system has not had enough oversight by the federal government," he said.

"We have a water master, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Fish and Wildlife Service - we have so many federal agencies involved and somebody dropped the ball here. ... We need to make sure there is proper investigation, renovation and repair work."

Jeffrey McCracken, spokesman for the bureau's Mid-Pacific Region based in Sacramento, said the cause of the breach remains under investigation.

"The responsibility for the Fernley breach will be determined through a scientific forensic study we've commissioned," McCracken said Thursday.

"Our immediate goal is to fix the breach, survey the entire 32-mile canal for potential seeps and correct them quickly in order to insure for public safety. The canal will not be reopened until we have completed this," he said. He did not respond directly to Reid's charges.

Officials have speculated on a variety of possible causes, including structural weaknesses in the century-old earthen irrigation canal, rodents such as gophers and muskrats that could have punched holes in it, and unusually heavy rain.

The flood occurred during a potent storm that also dumped up to 11 feet of snow in the nearby Sierra Nevada.

Reid said Bush's proposed budget issued Monday for the next fiscal year would slash the bureau's spending nationally by $188 million. An aide to Reid said the bureau's spending on maintenance for the Newlands Irrigation Project would fall from $1.3 million last year to $256,000 under Bush's spending plan.

The project includes the Truckee Canal, which takes water from the Truckee River south to Fallon-area farmers. The Jan. 5 rupture about 25 miles east of Reno was the sixth in the canal's history.

Reid said it was fortunate no lives were lost when the flood began about 4:30 a.m.

"What if it happened at 1 o'clock in the afternoon when kids were out there playing and 8 feet of water was flowing through?" he asked. "This was a tragedy in the making."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)