Fallon again taking steps to keep flood waters at bay

Published: Apr. 4, 2023 at 7:17 PM PDT
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FALLON, Nev. (KOLO) -In the spring of 2017, years of drought was followed by a big snowpack, enough to overwhelm flood control infrastructure across western Nevada.

In the Fallon area, that meant the possibility of more water than Lahontan Dam and the canals of the Truckee Carson Irrigation District could hold. That put farms, homes and the city itself in jeopardy.

The proactive response that followed was remarkable in scale, but most of all in speed, much of it designed and built as they went along.

A weir was built along a major canal miles below the dam to take excess water and send it into the desert. But it was realized that water would eventually spread miles away and threaten Highway US 95, a critical north-south link.

So, huge new culverts were built to take the water under the roadway to the marshes of Carson Lake on the other side. It too would eventually fill, so the last project of this response was built.

They call it “The Big Dig”, a 17 mile channel bringing the water east of town, under Highway US 50 and out to the Stillwater Marshes.

All in all, an amazing feat. From start to finish in about 90 days. And it worked.

Six years later it’s all still there. It did its job back then and it’s doing it today, but this time around it may not be enough.

The threat is even more serious this year. First, there’s even more snow in the upper elevations than in 2017.

“In 2017 we filled Lahontan three times and emptied it three times,” says Jack Worsley, the Area Manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. “Our forecast now is four to five times.”

But the critical unknown is timing. By this time in 2017, the snowmelt was already underway. This year our continued cold temperatures have delayed things while more storms have added to the snowpack. That means more water in a shortened runoff.

“We’ve got more snow on the mountain and its not coming off as quickly,” says Churchill County manager Jim Barbee. “So that gives us great concern that it’s going to turn hot and come off all at once.”

“So we’re going to see an awful lot of water in a short amount of time,” adds Worsley.

So, area officials are choosing again to be proactive. The county commissioners voted to spend $5.5 million on additional flood mitigation. They’re hoping for federal relief funds, but the work can’t wait.

Water is already filling the marshes of Carson Lake, so a new six-foot berm is being built to increase capacity.

The Big Dig has been cleared of sediment and debris and is once again carrying excess water where it can do little harm. Work is also underway on the construction of three more weirs to direct even more water into this valley-wide diversion system.

“Again, it’s just all-hands-on-deck to make sure that we are preparing for the worst possible outcome,” says Incident Commander Caleb Cage.

Will it be enough this time? The weather will answer that question.