•  Carrier

Decision Time in Truckee Meadows

If federal funding becomes available for the Truckee Meadows Flood Control Project, the Truckee River Flood Management Authority will reduce the amount of self-funding currently planned—but if not, the local authority is ready to go it alone.
By Jay Aldean, P.E., Duane Gapinski, P.E., M.SAME, and Jackie Borman, P.E.
Truckee Meadows floodplain looking upstream. The Reno-Sparks metropolitan area has a combined population of nearly half a million residents and its current infrastructure protection levels put it at risk for severe flooding. A major flood in 1997 caused more than $500 million in flood damages alone, not including other additional economic losses to the region. PHOTO BY MARK FOREST, HDR

As the sole outlet for Lake Tahoe, the Truckee River flows north, then east then north again for 121-mi starting with snow pack on the High Sierras and ending in Nevada’s Pyramid Lake in the Great Basin. The river offers a range of recreational activities, including fishing, river rafting, kayaking and sightseeing and is an integral part of the cities along its path.

Every five to 10 years, that most scenic beauty is replaced with the threat and reality of devastating floods. The Reno-Sparks metropolitan area combined has a population of nearly half a million residents and is known informally as Truckee Meadows, a name used by the early settlers for the area occupied mostly by south Sparks and east Reno. The area’s most recent flood occurred in 2006, though it did not cause nearly the devastation of the flood of 1997, which caused $500 million in actual flood damage in addition to other economic losses.

Another flood event is inevitable—as is significant flood-related damage to the region and its infrastructure.


The Sacramento District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the cities of Reno and Sparks, and Washoe County, Nev., are working together on the Truckee Meadows Flood Control Project. USACE is the federal sponsor while the three localities formed the Truckee River Flood Management Authority (TRFMA) as the non-federal local sponsor.

The project was initially authorized under the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) enacted in 1988. During the pre-construction engineering and design phase, that plan became economically infeasible mainly due to administrative rule changes on how projects were evaluated. In 1996, the local communities asked for reevaluation of the project, which was granted under the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act of 1996. Guidance was given to USACE to investigate flood damage reduction along with ecosystem restoration and recreation purposes. The next year the region experienced its worst recorded flood event. Even with the added incentive from this most recent disaster the re-evaluation process did not result in a plan USACE could recommend.

In 2012, the project was re-scoped to focus only on flood risk management with limited recreation features. It also was confined to a smaller project footprint totally within Truckee Meadows, thereby eliminating the downtown Reno project flood risk elements and the lower Truckee Canyon restoration features. This was done to establish a plan with an improved benefit-cost having a greater chance for Congressional approval and funding.

USACE’s project plan is nearing completion and is expected to be submitted to Congress in late spring 2014. Pending approval by Congress this year, the local sponsor will lobby for the portion of federal funding defined in the USACE plan for use in constructing a parallel local plan.

The Truckee Meadows area most recently was flooded in 2006. Above, historic Virginia Street Bridge in Reno.

Although USACE’s plan includes significant flood risk elements designed for a 50-year event, TRFMA wanted 100-year flood protection. To that end, TRFMA hired HDR Inc. in January 2013 to develop a new Locally Preferred Plan with a goal to provide 100-year-level flood protection and maximize the benefit-cost ratio so that USACE, upon review, could potentially recommend it to Congress. By following this strategy the local community would not impact the timing of the USACE study.

An extremely aggressive schedule for this modified plan was undertaken from January through April 2013. This first phase that HDR was hired to provide included multifaceted value engineering sessions, a modified general revaluation report with cost estimate, real estate plan, benefit-cost analysis and associated economics report, engineering report and draft environmental impact statement (EIS).

Additionally, TRFMA also tasked HDR to create a plan that would include additional flood risk features for Truckee River in the reach through downtown Reno, which were no longer covered in USACE’s plan. This second phase was completed in early December 2013. The result is a $446 million project with an expected construction completion period estimated at 10 years. Approximately 8.5-mi of flood control improvements are being planned.


In the event the federal funding does not materialize, TRFMA plans to initiate a flood-fee to self-fund the entire $446 million, 10-year (construction timeline) local project. If the funding becomes available, TRFMA will reduce the amount of self-funding revenue currently planned.

This “go it alone” approach requires the local sponsor to raise all the necessary revenue and adjust the local contribution downward should federal dollars become available. TRFMA asked HDR to develop a complete concept design, in part to establish project revenue requirements, and to demonstrate to the community that a substantially smaller project than had been sold to the public in the past could be affordable and still meet the flood risk goals.

A self-funding approach like this may become much more common as budgetary pressures increase and congressional gridlock stifles the federal authorization and appropriations processes.


The Truckee Meadows project has been full of challenges. For one, HDR was instructed to develop a completely new project alternative, one that could be incorporated into USACE’s existing General Reevaluation Report and EIS. Because HDR would be modifying project documents, close coordination with Sacramento District was required. This was a challenge, not because USACE was an unwilling collaborator, but because the district was not funded for this additional effort. It took innovative methods, such as allowing HDR staff to accompany TRFMA to typical “sponsor only” project meetings, including the Alternatives Formulation Briefing to foster information exchange.

Many people in the Reno-Sparks community view this project as indispensable for a successful future.

Additionally, the hydraulic modeling of this hugely complex watershed, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island, also was extremely difficult. Ultimately, a team of flood risk management, hydraulic modeling and risk management professionals was assembled to determine when the uncertainty in modeling results was adequately reflected in the contingency applied to the feasibility level cost estimate.

There were, and still are, a number of challenges to overcome in order to see the project through construction. The watershed is beset with excruciatingly detailed regulations regarding operation of the system, including a series of domestic water and flood storage reservoirs all operated by a court-appointed federal watermaster. Furthermore, the geographic layout of the various sub-watersheds and associated topography severely complicates the hydrologic and hydraulic understanding of system behavior so much so that very few individuals understand the nature of the system and how it might respond to various storm inputs.

Even with the concept engineering plan, there remains a massive public outreach effort to explain the problem, describe the solution and generate consensus among the residents to pay for it. The major challenge is that the preferred method by local officials to generate the necessary revenue is to establish a flood fee. This fee will be based on the benefits derived by the public for not having to deal with the damages and other economic losses associated with the devastating flood history of this region.

However, quantifying those benefits and developing legal arguments to support the fee will be another huge issue since the flood fee, as it is being proposed, is not known to have ever been successfully implemented elsewhere in the United States.


Many people in the Reno-Sparks community view this project as indispensable for a successful future. Another flood like the one in 1997 could very likely be the “final nail” for the community.

The region has incurred many job losses due to flooding events in the past; these mainly have been associated with the commercial and industrial sectors in Truckee Meadows. Prior to 1997, an estimated 30,000 jobs resided in the industrial areas of Sparks and Reno. After the flood there was a decline of about 10,000 jobs, and while that number has been holding, another disaster could have major consequences. A loss of this sector would be devastating to the region and its people.

The waiting is over. They have made their decision.

Jay Aldean, P.E., is Executive Director, Truckee River Flood Management Authority; 775-850-7470, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Duane Gapinski, P.E., M.SAME, is Senior Program Manager, and Jackie Borman, P.E., is Transportation Engineer, HDR Inc. They can be reached at 303-323-9808, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; and 775-337-4706, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., respectively.