On January 1, 1997, a massive storm ripped through Northern Nevada and Northern California, causing intense flooding subsequently causing major highways and roads to collapse and burying entire cities (like Reno and Sparks) in a knee-deep high pond of water. Ask anyone around at that time, and they’ll tell you the story of that historic storm and the damage it caused.
Now 25 years later, at the start of 2022, we’ve had some big storms come through…a lot of snowfall in the Sierra Nevada over the Christmas holiday and gusty 80 mph winds earlier this week, threatening to impact travel and cause power outages. But nothing compares to the storm of January 1997.
The flooding caused more than $700 million in damages, taking out trees, schools, and any other businesses that were caught near or within the raging Truckee River and torrential downpours. The water pressure busted out windows, seeped through concrete walls, bubbled up from storm drains. Water, mud, and debris took up residence for weeks, shutting down the airport and all downtown Reno.
“I was seven years young; my dad was a truck driver, and he kept his trailers on Kleppe Drive. I remember riding in his pickup truck to check on the trailers and water was up to our door. We drove by other trailers on Greg Street and seeing them half full of water- it was surreal.
“I wasn’t there, but I know that they trenched water over into the big empty pit that’s now the Sparks Marina and the water rushed in so fast that it eroded the dirt under I-80 and caused part of the freeway collapsed,” says Sparks City Councilman Donald Abbott. Living close to City Hall, Abbott says that his house was fine and believes most of the damage was done near the Truckee River and streams.
“I remember we had great snowfall that year and then lots of rain, and more significant flooding by the Truckee River,” he adds.
While a few meteorologists think that a storm like that could happen again, now 25 years later city officials believe that they are more prepared for it.
In 2008, the City of Sparks implemented a flood fee (the Sewer Enterprise Fund) charged in conjunction with the sewer fee that went towards the North Truckee Drain Realignment Project. That fee paid for 90 percent of the project. Completed in 2018, Q&D Construction built underground culvert boxes made of concrete water from Sparks Boulevard to East Larkin Circle that diverts water from the North Truckee Drain to the Truckee River. The project is considered a success since major storms since its completion have tested its ability to efficiently transport water in hazardous conditions, and the culverts have performed better than originally anticipated.
“It lowered the flood level by 12 inches,” Abbott says, who also sits on the board of the Truckee River Flood Management Authority. “We had flooding in 2017 and a significant rain event in 2019 and things went much better,” he adds.
In the spring of 2021, the City of Sparks launched another flood mitigation project by using $4 million to make storm drain improvements on the corner of East Prater Way and Vista Boulevard to help suppress potential flooding from water runoff coming from the Pah Rah mountains.
“We’re just trying to put all that water somewhere else; and it won’t help just Sparks but Reno, too,” Abbott adds.
As far as if Washoe County residents should brace for another storm like that given the recent snowfall? Weather forecasters say it’s unlikely, but residents should still stay informed on current and upcoming weather conditions and be prepared.
The National Weather Service issued a high wind warning for Lake Tahoe northward to Carson and western Nevada this past Monday, meteorologist Mark Deutschendorf saying that it’s one of the stronger wind events have come through in a while.
“A strong upper-level jet stream is pushing winds overhead and downslope winds are coming in from higher elevations,” Deutschendorf says. However, he doesn’t believe that there’s a possibility of flooding this week.
“We got very deep snowpack in recent winters, and it melted off in an orderly fashion in the springtime. It all depends on what we get in between storms and snow melting [about whether a chance of flooding can occur]. We were fortunate that the October 2021 storm came in on dry land and then the snow in December. Persistent heavy rain with high snow levels- when it’s raining at all elevations- would aggravate flood potential. When there’s pre-existing snow cover at all elevations even down to the valley for multiple days, then the snow would run off into full streams and rivers and create a flooding potential,” he adds.
Deutschendorf says that there’s no significant storms in the forecast like that in coming weeks, but big wind events could impact travel and cause power outages.