City sues Bureau of Reclamation for extension of public comment on canal plan due to COVID-19

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Robert Perea, The Fernley Reporter

The City of Fernley field a lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation requesting a COVID-19 extension of time to a 45-day period that Reclamation set to receive public comment on the Truckee Canal Extraordinary Maintenance Project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

The public comment period on the draft EIS ends April 20. In the draft EIS, the BOR chose lining a 12.7-mile stretch of the canal as its preferred alternative to repair the canal banks and prevent a reoccurrence of the flood in 2008 that damaged at least 590 Fernley properties.

The Fernley City Council on Tuesday, April 7, held a special meeting to authorize the filing of the lawsuit.

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In its suit, the city charges that the maintenance project will dry up hundreds of domestic wells in Fernley, and that the Bureau of Reclamation has ignored those concerns to date. The City requested the extension of time because, with domestic well owners required to stay home to reduce the spread of COVID-19, they cannot come together to tell the Bureau of Reclamation what they believe is wrong with their project.

The BOR was forced to cancel public meetings on March 24 and 25 because of the COVID-19 shut-in orders.

“Reclamation should not dry up these people’s wells, and Reclamation should make the time to listen to Fernley’s citizens,” Fernley Mayor Roy Edgington said. “Reclamation has waited years to get this DEIS out, will a couple more months really hurt, particularly when we are all staying home?”

Fernley and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe requested that the BOR extend the public comment period beyond April 20, and after the COVID-19 shut-in orders are lifted. BOR refused, prompting the City to file a lawsuit and ask the Federal District Court to intervene.

The Truckee Canal runs through Fernley and transports water from the Truckee River to the Lahontan Reservoir. In 2008, a canal breach flooded Fernley. Now, Reclamation is looking for ways to reduce the risk of future breaches.

But City officials believe the fix is worse than the disease. The City believes lining the Truckee Canal would prevent recharge from reaching a groundwater aquifer that serves Fernley’s municipal water system, and more than 450 domestic wells.

The City charges that lining the canal will dry up 71 percent of the domestic wells and cause operational problems for the City’s water system.

Fernley requested the Bureau of Reclamation consider other options to fix the canal without cutting off the groundwater recharge. In 2013, BOR agreed that the best alternative for canal safety was to create a cutoff wall that would not affect recharge through the bottom of the canal. In its March draft EIS, however, Reclamation removed that option and focused solely on canal lining.

In a statement released Thursday, City Manager Daphne Hooper said that because canal lining will dry up so many domestic wells, public meetings on the EIS process matter for those domestic well owners. She said that despite BOR’s refusal to give Fernley more time, other federal agencies in similar situations have already granted COVID-19 extensions. On the same day Reclamation denied Fernley’s requested extension, BLM announced an extension of the public comment period the DEIS regarding management of sage-grouse habitat. And on March 19, the U.S. Forest Service extended the public comment period for the DEIS for its proposed Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest plan because previously scheduled public meeting had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The current national and state declared emergencies have shut down all non-essential government and private business activity. Citizens are staying at home, and public meetings and gatherings are prohibited.

“Reclamation is surprisingly unwilling to grant a modest extension, even though COVID-19 is clearly limiting the opportunity for people to have their voices heard about such a highly controversial proposal,” Edgington said.

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