[No part of this article can be copied or distributed without the express, written permission of the author. All rights reserved. ]
Of the making of books, wrote Ecclesiastes, there is no end. One could say the same of floodwalls along the nation’s rivers. They are beloved by engineers seeking to protect communities from surging water. Only dredging and levying leaves the engineers so enthralled, even after so many of the walls have been topped, breached, or destroyed, leaving astonished communities once again flooded.
Not that the engineers always have a great deal of choice in the matter. By the time they arrive, communities have marched to the very banks with their businesses (for ease of transportation), their homes (to indulge the wealthiest among them who can afford luxurious views), and their downtowns (to be as near as possible to the bridges that create the trade routes on which the merchants rely). It seldom seems to occur to citizens to leave floodplains to themselves and build outside the danger zone, leaving an untrammeled beauty around which a community might center its soul.
And so it was in Reno almost from the beginning. As early as 1907, after a major March flood did thousands of dollars in damage, the community cried out for floodwalls—or seawalls, as they were known then. That June the City Council promised to build a wall from Virginia Street to Riverside Avenue along the south bank of the river.
In October the order for construction went out, over the objections of Councilman Fitzgerald, who said that for the $2,000 expenditure, more good could be accomplished by repairing the bridges. Under the leadership of City Engineer Maxson, in 1908 the river was surveyed for a two-hundred-foot wall extending upstream from the Virginia Street Bridge along the south bank to Granite Street, or, as the Nevada State Journal described it, “to where the irrigation ditch is covered over, where there is a ‘jog’ from which point the wall is planned about 12 feet further southward and parallel to the same course.” (Granite was one block west of South Virginia, running from the river toward the south; later a bridge would be built linking it to Sierra on the north, and the entire street would become Sierra.) The seawall was to have an average height of ten feet and would be composed of large stones and boulders obtained from the river and cemented in mortar. To make the work do double duty as an improvement project, it would also widen Island Avenue by 35 feet, with a cement sidewalk replacing the wooden one. Construction soon began.
During this period, a similar stone-and-concrete structure was built along the north side of the Truckee in the same general area, so that the walling in of the river was well begun before the century was a decade old.
In the ensuing years, as the walls expanded east and west, the chroniclers of the day make clear that they were indeed intended as much for civic improvement as for flood protection. There was a great desire to civilize the Truckee, to replace its inconvenient natural banks with concrete and stone that would not crumble away during high water but would permanently support the fine new streets and sidewalks indicative of an up-and-coming town.
For instance, in 1910 when a cement river wall was proposed south of the Federal Building, in conjunction with the creation of an aqueduct to carry away water from the asylum ditch, the Reno Evening Gazette declared that the project “will add much to the appearance of that portion of the business district of the city and especially to the water front.” In 1929 the Gazette assured residents that walling up the river from the east end of the Post Office lot to the east side of Center Street ‘will do much to improve the river front.” (The lot sat at the corner of Virginia and Front streets; Front paralleled the river on the north side, heading east from the point where Riverside Drive ended; it was the closest street to the river on that side.) In 1934, work north of the Federal Building included a 35-foot-wide street between the building and the wall. In 1949, the Journal praised a new retaining wall east of Belmont Road,” saying it made “an impressive backdrop” for a young fisherman in the accompanying photo in that it “replaces the crumbling earthen bank which bordered the Truckee River Lane in a more or less unsightly fashion. Rather prominent in the background is the Hughes-Porter Bldg, which also is rather new to Reno.” (Belmont curved down to the river from the south, approaching it in an eastward curve past Liberty, Ridge and Court, then continuing to swing east until it reached the river near the end of Mill Street; much of this is now Arlington Avenue. Truckee River Lane disappeared later, but was situated south of First Street immediately adjacent to the river.)
Although the city was financially responsible for river work, it often sought aid from other quarters. For the 1910 project, after work had been suspended for four months due to a lack of local funds, Nevada U.S. Senator George Nixon secured $5,000 from the urgency deficiency bill. In 1926 the extension of the Island Avenue wall westward was facilitated by property owners donating adjoining land on condition that the city pave the street. Construction of a wall behind the Carnegie Library Building (1929) was funded via a new state law that permitted the library trustees to levy a special tax; and the wall near the Federal Building was funded by $7,000 remaining from the congressional appropriation to build the structure.
Riverfront inhabitants and businesses could not get enough of the protection the walls offered, making repeated and urgent requests for extensions, including, for example, several homeowners along Riverside Drive who, in 1939, demanded a wall similar to the one upstream defending Idlewild Park.
But not every demand for modernity was met. In 1930, the city rejected a proposal to cover the river with concrete from Virginia Street to Center Street, to be used as a parking site for as many as 1,000 automobiles.
New walls were a prominent feature of the 1986 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-control plan, with five miles proposed, as well as eleven miles of levees. But the plan never became reality because of the high cost.
When the Truckee Meadows governments embarked on a new flood-control plan in the early twenty-first century, it was promised to be a river-natural project called The Living River Plan. Still, the first project built was a $5.8 million floodwall and levee system on Reno-Sparks Indian Colony land. It was situated along the south bank, extending from the U.S. 395 Bridge to the Glendale Bridge (2,300 feet), but was partly disguised by a landscaped berm as part of a new natural-river philosophy.
And then, when soaring costs, the steep decline in governmental revenues during the Great Recession, and seventeen years of delay and muddling by the Corps of Engineers convinced local authorities that the Living River Plan was beyond their finances, they drastically revised the plan so that for long stretches it now emphasized not naturalistic levees and greenbelt but the same old love-affair with—of course—floodwalls.
Floodwall system, 2014
As of 2014, this was the state of the floodwall system, which was confined at that point entirely to the downtown Reno area:
A person walking along the river downtown would find rocks and concrete extending roughly from Booth Street on the west to Lake Street on the east. The upstream portion was riprap (rocks piled along a bank in order to prevent erosion, useful during spring runoff but also to some extent during floods). The riprap first appeared on the west side of the Booth Street Bridge, piled high along both the north and south banks. Just east of Booth, on the south side, rocks were piled adjacent to the bridge, but the north bank was untouched. The river then flowed naturally along the south bank for a considerable distance. On the north bank, however, riprap picked up again just downstream from the Keystone Bridge, which was a short distance from Booth. At first this riprap was composed of rocks only, beginning at a height of only a foot of so and gradually growing to three or four feet, and following the natural rise of the bank. At Washington Street, a real floodwall appeared, still composed of rocks but with the rocks bound together by mesh, and the streamside surface was flat; this continued up to the Whitewater Park at Stevenson Street.
Meantime on the south bank a regular floodwall appeared, at first standing only a few feet high but growing taller fairly quickly. On the north bank, a concrete floodwall began a few feet east of the Arlington Avenue Bridge, and also grew taller; by the time the river reached the Virginia Street Bridge, this side had more the appearance of a small canyon. The south bank looked much the same until the City of Reno created its two-block Riverwalk, where the former floodwall was naturalized with a sunken paved walk for a short distance west of Sierra Street and for the full block from Sierra to Virginia. West of Virginia Street, the floodwalls extended to Center Street on the south and to Lake Street (one block further) on the north. At these points the river bank was again natural.
© Bruce Bledsoe