Judge Allows Some Fernley Canal Flows but With Inspections

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RENO, Nev. (AP) - Farmers and ranchers dependent on water in an
irrigation canal that burst and flooded Fernley in January scored at least a temporary victory Thursday with a federal court order that allows canal flows to continue at the current rate at least until next week.

U.S. District Judge Lloyd George ruled the flows can continue at up to 350 cubic feet per second but ordered daily inspections of the earthen canal to guard against a failure like the one that flooded up to 600 homes about 30 miles east of Reno on Jan. 5.

Lawyers for hundreds of the flood victims are seeking a temporary restraining order to cut the flows to 250 cfs based on their experts' belief there's a high likelihood flows any greater than that will cause another breach in the 105-year-old canal.

Officials for the Truckee Carson Irrigation District who operate the canal for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation argue that move would have a significant economic impact on about 2,000 farmers and ranchers who already are faced with less-than-normal water supplies for their crops and livestock this summer.

George heard five hours of testimony on the matter in federal court in Reno on Tuesday and continued the hearing to next Tuesday, when he intends to make a permanent decision on the request to restrict flows.

His temporary ruling, signed late Wednesday and made public on Thursday, marks a victory for the region's agricultural community, said Dave Overvold, TCID's project manager.

Water users already are looking at a 20 percent reduction in normal supplies with flows at the 350 cfs level in the canal with a maximum capacity of 750 cfs, Overvold said.

Dropping flows to 250 cfs would result in a reduction of about another 25 percent down to 144,000 acre feet of water compared to a normal year of 271,000 acre feet, he said.

An acre foot of water is equal to the amount of water that covers an acre in 1 foot of water. The 32-mile Truckee Canal diverts water from the Truckee River at Derby Dam east of Reno, past Fernley and on southeast to the Lahontan Reservoir for storage.

The Bureau of Reclamation's investigation into the breach determined rodent burrows were the primary cause, but the flood victims say in a series of lawsuits that experts have concluded the failure was due to "historical negligence" by the bureau and the TCID.

Bob Hager, a Reno lawyer representing flood victims in a lawsuit against TCID and the bureau, had a mixed reaction to the judge's ruling. He noted that Overvold admitted in court on Tuesday that in recent weeks the irrigation district had exceeded the 350 cfs limit the bureau has imposed on the flows.

"The good news is that TCID and BOR will no longer be allowed to put more than 350 cfs in the canal like they did five days out of eight from May 15 through May 25," Hager said, including a peak of 395 cfs on May 19.

"Now if they did that, it would be in violation of a court order. Previously they were only in violation of an order from the bureau," he said.

"The bad news is it is basically on the honor system, which is trusting the same guys who allowed the water (upstream from the Truckee River) to continue to run into the canal for nine hours."

Hager said the daily inspections are designed by the court totry to protect the public.

"So that is terrific the court is requiring that. But our concern, again, is those daily inspections are going to be performed by people my clients don't trust," he said.

Hager said he remained optimistic the judge would order a reduction in flows next week.

"The judge has only heard a portion of the evidence. I think the important thing is that given what he has heard so far, the judge is clearly concerned about the safety and welfare of the people of fernley and trying to balance that concern and the safety issues with the desire for as much water as possible by TCID."

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