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Reno Nevada Truckee River flooding Truckee River raging at Wingfield Park, downtown Reno.
Photo © Stan White
Looking at the Truckee River in Reno right now, low and half frozen, it's hard to believe it has the potential wreak havoc over a wide swath of Reno and Sparks. Yet it has done so repeatedly, the most recent time being the New Year's flood of 2005. The 1997 flood was much worse, drowning downtown Reno and putting much of the Sparks industrial area under water. It filled up what was then called the Helms Pit next to I80, which has since become Sparks Marina Park.

Most major Truckee River floods occur during the winter months. That may seem odd, but let me explain. All that snow on the ground (and there's way more of it upstream in the Sierra) is just frozen water. Normal springtime melting soaks into the ground and flows down the river in a leisurely fashion. The flood problem crops up when we get an unseasonable combination of warm weather and rain, both of which lead to rapid snow melt. If these two things occur with enough intensity and at around the same time, the river channel simply cannot carry the surging water downstream fast enough and it spreads out across the Truckee Meadows.

Fortunately, Truckee River flood control is finally being taken seriously. Several projects east of Sparks, headed up by the Nature Conservancy, are restoring the river to the natural, meandering state that was destroyed years ago by Army Corps of Engineers channel "improvements." Levee improvements have been made in Reno and a Living River Plan is in place to guide implementation of future flood control measures.

My Flood Preparedness article has information about weathering a Truckee River flood and links to lots more relevant information.

In a related piece, the New York Times online has published a photo essay titled A River and Ranch. It's about restoring the Truckee River and includes some interesting information about the Mustang Ranch, Nevada's first legal brothel. The Ranch used to be right where the restoration work is being done, but is now located several miles downstream. A companion article is titled Onetime Nevada Brothel Could Become Conservationists' Oasis.

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