Protecting the Truckee River: The Lifeblood of Downtown Reno

Oct 6, 2015

The Truckee River. Photo by Alexa Ard.

The Truckee River winds through the Riverwalk District, but a number of issues like urban blight prevents the area from reaching its fullest potential. That’s why public and private stakeholders are collaborating on a master plan to protect this waterway and the community around it. To learn more, Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray spent time along the Truckee.

Even though the Truckee River has dwindled from a roar to a trickle, the sound of flowing water—or what’s left of it— still beckons people to relax, play, or just be in the moment. 

“It really adds to the downtown,” Mil Morales says. “It probably attracts people here because they want to enjoy the serenity of the area.”

Morales is a visitor from California who’s been enjoying restaurants and shops dotted along the river. And with construction taking place around the area, like at the old post office on North Sierra, more businesses are settling in.

“I think it’s probably about time that downtown gets a little more revamping,” Elena Conway says. “There’s a lot of empty buildings, a lot of empty spaces that aren’t being used.”

Elena Conway is a long-time resident who now lives downtown and frequently takes breaks by the river with her dog Pearl. Conway says she often finds the area empty.

Getting more people to visit, shop and eat around the Truckee River is a priority for the Riverwalk Merchants Association—a group of business owners who banded together about twenty years ago. The group has recently grown to more than 60 members under Scott Dunseath’s leadership. To learn more about their work, I meet up with Dunseath at his shop, the city-pride apparel store Reno eNVy.

Anh Gray: “So tell me more about the Riverwalk.”

Scott Dunseath: “Sure let’s take a walk. The Riverwalk is the space between Keystone Avenue to the Ballpark…”

On our walk, we notice a mix of urban blight and new development all in one microcosm. On some blocks, issues of homelessness, loitering and litter persist. Yet, there are also people bicycling, walking their dogs, and strolling by. Dunseath says he often hears people saying, “Oh, I didn't know this was here; oh, this is really cool; oh, man downtown has really turned a corner. It's a long road but we're getting there.”

Drawing people to the river has been an ongoing effort. Dunseath says the turning point came about a decade ago when the Whitewater Park opened at Wingfield.

“You started with the kayakers, then you'd see tubers, then you'd see rafters, and it really was the start of getting people back into the Riverwalk,” Duseath says.

Not far from the Riverwalk, over in Midtown, that community has undergone a transformation and has been successful with re-branding its image. Dunseath hopes to emulate that and get more locals and tourists to view the Riverwalk District as a distinctive part of town.

“We’re not a strip mall. You go to any city on any corner, you see the same 12 sandwich shops. We’re gritty and we’re pioneers,” Dunseath says. “That's what's cool about Reno. It builds character and it produces characters.”

For Dunseath preserving the health and beauty of the Truckee River is a must to attract people to the Riverwalk. That’s why his group is collaborating with the nonprofit Keeping Truckee Meadows Beautiful—or KTMB.

“When you think about where it comes from—Lake Tahoe—there’s no more beautiful, purer water that I can think of and once it hits our community we find that it tends to get pretty dirty," Christi Cakroglu says. "When you think about that being our water supply, it’s kind of a concern.”

Cakiroglu  heads the annual KTMB river clean-up project. Hundreds of volunteers turn-up each year to clear tons of invasive weeds and collect garbage from the banks of the river.

“We find all sorts of things, everything from grocery carts and shoes to used diapers,” Cakiroglu says.

But, sustaining the river takes much more than just picking up trash. Cakiroglu says it’s a big job that requires participation from many groups in the community. Last year KTMB partnered with Nevada Land Trust starting an initiative to develop the One Truckee River Management Plan.

“There's not one overall plan for the river is what we have found,” Cakiroglu says. “What we have are a lot of groups and organizations that do various projects along different sections of the river.”

Reno councilwoman Naomi Duerr was the former director of the Truckee River Flood project. From her experience, she says stewardship of the waterway is a complex undertaking with many ecological, safety, business, neighborhood, and aesthetic issues colliding.

“It’s inevitable that you’ll get involved in all of these issues,” Duerr says. “And I think by understanding how all these things interconnect, they’re going to be more successful.”

Because of that complexity the One Truckee River Management Plan remains a work in progress. Stakeholders met last month to hash out long-term strategies, with the goal of presenting policies for adoption by government agencies next year. Regardless of what they decide, everyone working together shares a similar vision: for the Riverwalk to become a bustling city hub, home to a pristine waterway.