RENO, Nev. (AP) - More than 100 residents whose homes were flooded in January filed another lawsuit Wednesday asking a federal
court to block plans to resume normal water flows in a century-old irrigation canal that farmers and ranchers say they need for their crops and livestock.
The latest lawsuit names the federal government as a defendant and seeks to force the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to remove mud, toxic mold and bacteria from homes damaged by flood waters when the Truckee-Carson irrigation canal broke in Fernley on Jan. 5. The break flooded nearly 600 homes and led to state and federal disaster declarations.
The bureau blamed the breach primarily on numerous rodent holes that weakened the canal's earthen walls.
But lawyers for the flood victims say experts have concluded the failure was due to "historical negligence" by the bureau and the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District in maintaining and operating the 32-mile canal built in 1903.
"The same dangers that caused the first breach of the canal still exist and increased water flow through the canal poses the imminent danger of another breach," the lawsuit says.
Hundreds of homeowners face "a clear and present danger of irreparable harm" unless the court at least temporarily caps water flows at the current 150 cubic feet per second, or about one-fifth the maximum operating level of 750 cfs, says the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Reno.
The suit says the Bureau of Reclamation and the irrigation district "intentionally decided to allow a dangerously high quantity of water to flow through the canal at the time of the breach" because they wanted to restore water levels in the Lahontan Reservoir after years of drought. More than 2,000 farmers and ranchers are dependent on the water the canal carries from the Truckee River to the reservoir.
The two agencies "will again allow a dangerously high quantity of water to flow through the canal if they are not enjoined by this court," the suit says.
The bureau announced April 28 that it intended to allow flows to rise to 250 cfs on May 10, with another increase to 350 cfs when the irrigation district takes additional steps to ensure the safety of the canal about 30 miles east of Reno.
Bob Hager, a Reno lawyer representing the flood victims, said his clients initially believed that 250 cfs was a safe level. But he said experts determined current water flows already are at the same level in the canal that the bureau had projected they would be when water flowed at 250 cfs. The reason for that, Hager said, is because approximately eight feet of fine sands and silt has been allowed to accumulate in the bottom of the canal.
"It was because of the irresponsible actions of these government agencies that the victims lost their homes and their possessions in the first place," Hager said.
"Not only should they have to be called to account for their negligence, but they must be stopped from letting it happen again," he said.
Jeffrey McCracken, spokesman for the bureau's regional office in Sacramento, Calif., said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Irrigation district officials did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
Hager said the top of the original canal - more like a trench - was at ground level and that the canal still is largely structurally sound below ground level. But he said over time the irrigation district dredged material from the canal and piled it on the sides of the canal, forming earthen walls 6- to 8-foot high.
Unlike the impermeable material that makes up the walls of the ditch, the aboveground walls are made up of silt and sand subject to catastrophic failure, he said.
The lawsuit says the agencies knew the material was not suitable for transporting water and led to at least six earlier breaches.
The flood victims have filed similar lawsuits and sought similar injunctions against the district, the city of Fernley, Lyon County, developers and real estate companies in the area, but had not named
the bureau as a defendant.
Hager said the case should now be ripe for hearing in U.S. District Court, where Judge Brian Sandoval last month sent the other lawsuits to state court in Lyon County, saying his court had no jurisdiction.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)