U.S. Judge Sends Nevada Canal Water Flow Case to State Court

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RENO, Nev. (AP) - In a case pitting farmers against flood victims, a federal judge says a state court should decide whether more water should flow through the irrigation canal that broke in January and flooded nearly 600 homes in Fernley.

Meanwhile, officials for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation say the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District is "close" to satisfying the requirements necessary for it to safely start raising water levels
to meet the area's agricultural demands.

U.S. District Judge Brian Sandoval in Reno had been scheduled Monday to consider a request from dozens of Fernley flood victims to issue a temporary restraining order prohibiting the irrigation district from boosting water flows.

But Sandoval ruled this week that the bureau's parent Interior Department was correct in arguing that the federal court has no jurisdiction and he ordered the case returned to Lyon County District Court.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the 32-mile earthen canal built in 1903, determined burrowing rodents were the primary cause of the Jan. 5 canal break, which led to state and federal disaster declarations.

The irrigation district shut down the canal immediately after the flood until flows resumed last month at 20 percent of capacity, 150 cubic feet per second of a maximum 750 cfs.

At issue is how soon and how much additional water can be returned to the canal, a matter that pits townspeople concerned about the potential for another disaster against farmers and ranchers who depend on the water for their crops and livestock.

The bureau has given the district permission to raise flows in stages to 250 cfs and then 350 cfs once certain safety measures and monitoring plans are in place.

But lawyers representing more than 100 Fernley residents who are suing the district, the city of Fernley and Lyon County said they want their own experts to independently determine if the plans are sound enough to risk putting more water in the canal.

The bureau told the district last month that flows can rise to 250 cfs once it has formalized and the bureau has approved: a standard operating procedure for the canal, a facility improvement plan, an emergency action plan, a monitoring program and a maintenance plan. To go to 350 cfs, a special rodent control program also must be fully implemented.

Bureau officials have scheduled a public meeting Tuesday at Fernley High School night to discuss progress.

"We continue to work very closely with the irrigation district to finalize the required documents before we can put more water in the canal. We are close," said Jeffrey McCracken, regional spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento.

"Our goal is to get the canal operating safely up to 350 cfs and then even higher once some fairly significant modifications to the levies have occurred. Our immediate goal is safe operation of the canal up to 350 cfs."

McCracken said the pending court case has not affected the bureau's approach.

"We're charging ahead to do what we need to do with the water district to get water back in the canal. The court thing is a separate issue. We not going to wait around for the court to tell us what to do," he said.

Dave Overvold, the district's project manager for the canal, agreed the two entities are "close" to reaching agreement.

"We've supplied our plans and they are reviewing them," he said. "We've already gone in and plugged with concrete all the (rodent) holes we could see."

He said a contractor will monitor the rodents and fill any new burrows.

Betsy Rieke, Lahontan Basin area manager for the bureau, said she anticipates advocates on both sides to be vocal Tuesday night.

"I think there will be a lot of people who don't want us to go to 250 cfs and lot of people very concerned about their crops because they are not getting water," she said.

Any boost beyond 350 cfs will require significant modifications of the canal, something the bureau does not anticipate this year or perhaps even next.

The estimated cost of such repairs ranges from $28 million to line one half of the canal with riprap to $390 million to replace the canal with a 16-foot diameter pipeline.

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