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Sparks: Pioneer Dam effort on hold, cost up $212,000

More than $212,000 in unanticipated costs tied to rebuilding Pioneer Dam is prompting tongue-lashings at both Sparks city administrators and the federal government.
BY DAVID JACOBS • djacobs@rgj.com • November 27, 2009

The extra funding is needed because Sparks did not obtain all of the permits from the federal government before the city awarded a construction contract earlier this year, officials said. Now with winter arriving, the project is being mothballed.

"The difficulty I have is that we are stewards of taxpayers' money," Councilman Ron Schmitt said. "Now with errors on the staff's part, we have a $212,000 deficiency."

Sparks Public Works Director Wayne Seidel told city leaders that Sparks had awarded the Pioneer Dam contract in anticipation of the permits being issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We learned a lesson as far as don't count your chickens before they hatch," Seidel told the city council in a briefing this week.

He had anticipated support from the fish and wildlife service. "It improves fish passage, and that structure is old. There are efficiencies that we are gaining by doing the project," he said.

Mayor Geno Martini blames the Fish and Wildlife Service. He traced it back to the city's whitewater park, also on the Truckee River, that opened last spring. The agency said the whitewater park at Rock Park was inconsistent with long-term goals to restore the Truckee River and return threatened fish to its waters.

"This is a personal vendetta against the city of Sparks with U.S. Fish and (Wildlife) because they didn't want the whitewater park, and we finally got it through," Martini told city leaders this week. "They never wanted that water park, and this is paybacks. I'm thoroughly convinced of that.

"Through a normal process, this permit would have been issued, and it should have been issued, and they held it up on purpose, put it on somebody's desk, and it went to the bottom of the pile," Martini said of the Pioneer Dam project. "That's what's aggravated me more than anything...They held it up knowing full well that we needed to do this."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday disputed the mayor's claims. "We don't have a personal vendetta against the city," said Bob Williams, the federal agency's Nevada state supervisor. "I view the statement of the mayor as one of those standing for the people and wanting to make a statement," Williams said. "We have no personal vendetta. We will continue to work with the city and the (Army) Corps of Engineers and permit a project that is good for fish and good for the city."

The Pioneer Dam dispute is not linked to the whitewater park "other than the consultation process is the same" with permits required for both, Williams said.

"It's the same people going through the same process, and one might say that they (Sparks) should have known what we were going to need...They didn't learn from the first (whitewater park) lesson. Hopefully, they'll learn from this one."

"We have tried to express to the city, not only through the whitewater park, but also the Pioneer (dam) project, our general concern for in-river work that would be adverse to our recovery program for Lahontan cutthroat trout and cui-ui," Williams said. "That is our responsibility under the endangered species act, to try to maintain and support habitat that would support these two federally endangered species."

The agency is working with the Corps of Engineers in an issuing a biological opinion on the Pioneer Dam project.

"We are still waiting for an adequate mitigation plan from the city that the Corps would use to show how this project is going to minimize and mitigate the in-river work that could potentially be adverse to Lahontan cutthroat trout," Williams said.

The $212,020 approved this week to Peavine Construction will pay costs to mothball the Pioneer Dam project until next summer, if permits are granted. Money will come from what was described to City Council as "opportunity funds." They originate from storm-drain funding obtained from ratepayers.

"A new term," said Schmitt, a council member since 2001. "I've never heard of 'opportunity funds.' We've got a slush fund of opportunities. I've got a whole bunch of opportunities to use that money, but I've never been told we have that slush fund."

"...If we know the federal government has issues, we need to be a little more diligent to make sure we don't create the mistakes," Schmitt said .

He joined council members Ron Smith, Julia Ratti and Mike Carrigan in supporting the additional funds for Pioneer Dam.

"I'm going to approve it because you put a contractor in a bad position," Schmitt said. "I would guess to say that if a contractor went out there and did a job without a permit, we would probably be pretty hard on that contractor. Would we not?"