Social: “Reno Got It Right”

We were able to sit down with City of Reno’s Mayor Hillary Schieve and Councilmembers David Bobzien and Naomi Duerr to talk about the Truckee River and its social aspects.

Below is that transcribed interview:

One Truckee River: First question for all of you. Could I have each of you talk about what the Truckee River brings and means to the City of Reno?

Councilmember David Bobzien: It is not an overstatement to say that the Truckee River is the lifeblood of our community. I think how I interact with the river in so many different ways, in terms of recreation — I run along the river on the trail, I fish the river. . . I’ve certainly floated on the river, and so many of our residents and constituents do the same thing.
Certainly it’s important for our drinking water, for business, for industry in all its forms. The health of the Truckee, in so many ways, is a strong indicator of the health of our overall community. I think the other cite to remember about the Truckee is that the issues facing it, and the solutions that are required for those issues, are incredibly complex. They are multi-jurisdictional, and they touch so many different people and interests that the solutions really are born out of being more together to find unique ways to address problems.
In so many ways the One Truckee River Initiative is a really great step forward for the community because it is all of these interests, all of these concerns and all the possibilities together at one table.

Councilmember Naomi Duerr: From my perspective, obviously what David said. But from my perspective it’s the lifeblood of our region. And water is the key resource in Nevada as the driest state. Everything revolves around water: our lives, the environment, the health of the environment, the economy — everything’s dependent on having water.
It’s special to me from a perspective that it sets us apart as a unique city. For example, Las Vegas does not have a river running through it. Many Western cities do not. We’re very, very lucky how we’re situated. It ties us to California, it crosses states, it crosses counties, it crosses cities, and it crosses even in that the terminus is at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe reservation.
It ties us internationally, nation to nation. It’s so unique in our culture and our economy. That’s one reason we need to put a lot of attention to it.

Mayor Hillary Schieve: Obviously everything they touched on is incredibly true. We could go on all day long how what an incredible asset it is.
I think, going back to Naomi’s point, how lucky we are as a city to have such an incredible asset. We truly are. Most cities don’t have that. I think where we missed the boat is, honestly, I don’t think people understand the magnitude of that asset.
I think it’s up to us to continue to educate and continue to make people more aware what the Truckee River brings to us and why it’s so important. Of course, it’s such a sense of community. That’s the one thing, certainly in the summertime when I’m driving down and looking at everyone coming together right by the Truckee River. Obviously water is absolutely essential. But again, I think I always sort of look at it and go, ‘Wow, I don’t think we understand the magnitude of that asset.’ That’s why it’s even that much more important moving forward to understand and educate people. Everything we can do to preserve it.

Duerr: To build on what our mayor said, historically, Reno as a community has “turned our back on the river.” It’s a catchphrase but it’s all too true. We located the landfill on the river; we dumped waste in the river; we faced our buildings away from the river. It was just something to deal with rather than a centerpiece.
So I think the point she’s making is very key: We have turned towards the river, and made it become part of us. We have, to use your phraseology, become ‘one with the river.’

One Truckee River: What are some of the challenges to you guys — and some you might have already touched on — what are some of the challenges that come with having a river, the Truckee River, run through the middle of a city, specifically social challenges?

Scheive: I think, part of that, when you have something of that magnitude that attracts that many people: again, be good to it. That can be a challenge, that people — like you were talking about earlier, we know that people will bring needles down there; we know that people will hide along the banks; we know that people will sleep there. That creates challenges. . . . It sort of attracts, sometimes it attracts the things that can abuse the river. That can be a challenge.

Duerr: I think Hillary summarized it very well. The appeal of the river cuts across all socioeconomic boundaries. I don’t care if you’re very, very wealthy and you’ve chosen to live in the Montage because it’s downtown and it’s near the river; or you’re a student who’s going to the University of Nevada, Reno who wants to go kayaking; or you are homeless and it makes a really handy place to camp, because people love to be around water and there’s sort of a sense of privacy there (whether there is or there isn’t real privacy).
I think that we’re guilty of loving it too much, and that’s sort of the beginning of a problem.

Bobzien: The loving it to death is always front of mind in terms of user conflicts . . . but in a lot of ways those are good problems to have. You go down to, say, Wingfield Park in the summertime. You see boaters out there, you see swimmers out there. You can see kind of what impacts they may have if there’s people leaving trash, if there’s the conflicts between the users themselves, etc.
Those are all things that have to be managed, but I think it’s even — on the bright side of it, it’s sort of like it’s good to always know that we have this resource and it’s a resource that people love. There’s a constituency there of those users that will be vocal, be supportive of proactive measures to protect the river and make it better.
The camping and the homeless issue is certainly. . . it’s an issue unto itself in so many ways. It’s one that is a perfect example of just how complex the river issues can be because it’s not just a river issue. It really touches on social service capacity; it touches on economic factors and other things that we have to work through as a community. But it begins and ends with the river. So many of our issues in the city begin and end with rivers.

Duerr: And if I could, I’d like to add one more thing — well, it’s really two more things.
One thing is that often when you have a river through a city, it actually defines the city. It’s big, it’s broad, you have to go from one side to the other; there are the people that are on this side of the river, that side of the river. In this case, the river is relatively narrow, and it has not created a barrier, a physical barrier in our town. But it has, geographically, set off different areas of town. You have the River District; you have the Financial District on on the other side; you have Idlewild, which is a major park; you have kind of a culture, food and arts thing happening along the river. It’s unusual in that instead of dividing us it’s actually brought us together.
The other thing I wanted to add was . . . . I think I will hold off until your next question.

One Truckee River: I know City of Reno is very active in efforts to include some of the homeless on the river and all of that stuff. Can I have you guys talk about those current efforts and how they are addressing the homeless issue, specifically on the river?

Duerr: While we’re gathering our thoughts, I just want to — I did remember what I wanted to add in.
Not only (is it) us in present time that are attracted to the river, but for generations people have been attracted to this river. That is one challenge, that if we want to do redevelopment along the river, we’ve got to handle and recognize and address historical, and in this case I’m speaking Native American, issues that we will encounter as we do development or re-development along the river.
Whether it’s re-building flood walls or building a new bridge or doing some redevelopment, for example, along the train trench. Wherever we are, it’s not just us that has been attracted here, so we also have to factor that in as a kind of social/cultural issue in working with the river.

Schieve: I can elaborate a little bit. What I find sort of interesting — this is probably more psychology — I don’t know if you’re familiar with our Reno Works Program. Part of that program, homeless are “incentivized.” We pay them to clean up along the river. That’s just a little portion of it.
Interesting enough, while they’re down there, they’re actually interacting with other homeless people. . . . It really gave them a wake-up call on how the river brought them together. They’re sitting there picking up other people’s needles and other people’s belongings — and they were also in that same position at one point.
That these inspiring stories actually came out of them taking pride back into the river. (They’re) telling these people that (a)re sleeping there, and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve lived this lifestyle at one time. My life is changing dramatically. You can change, too,’ and sort of giving hope along the river.
We’re seeing something there that I think is pretty special. As much as it’s heartbreaking, there’s also a side to it that I think the river has brought this new found light to the homeless situation and a weird sense of direction.

Bobzien: Yeah, I think on the homeless issue and camping issue, it’s important to recognize, and it’s hard for the general public to understand and see, all the collaboration that’s happening and the multi-(source) effort we have in motion in dealing with this issue.
The first thing to recognize is the fact that we do, in partnership with Sparks and Washoe County, operate the Community Assistance Center, a shelter, and we are currently revising the RFP for the primary operation of that shelter.
There’s a great deal of emphasis in that effort on expanding the spectrum of services that are available to people that are in need. Homelessness is such a multi-dimensional problem, and each individual who is homeless has their own set of issues. It’s important that we not just put in a place where they have a place to sleep in a shelter situation, but also make sure they have access to services, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s addiction problems, you name it.
That is ongoing and we should have some progress very shortly in the release of the new RFP to get a reach on how that works. The Reno Works Program that the mayor mentioned is a fantastic and very visible example of what we’re doing. Not only is it important for upgrading and giving people ladders up out of situations, but as the mayor mentioned, it’s that peer-to-peer communication between the folks that are doing the cleaning and the folks that maybe be more ‘service resistant,’ the ones that want to camp on the river because they just don’t want to engage with the possible services and benefits that might assist them in their situation.
By having the front line cleanup crew of people who have been there and many of them perhaps have camped themselves on the river, there’s value in that conversation to try to get folks to understand that camping on the river is a problem. It is a public health problem, it is a safety problem; camping on the river is one of the most unsafe environments for a homeless person to be in. That’s something that has a lot of benefit.
But I think the other thing that happens that people don’t really realize first: there’s so much communication between the agencies, between the police department, the fire department talking with social services — there’s no one tactic that you just do over and over again. It’s really a whole array of tactics to deal with the issue, and to work with people to try to address this issue. I’m very proud of all the agencies, in the work that they do . . . on this issue.

Duerr: I thought since they did such a great job on that, I would just give you an anecdote that I experienced.
One day I went down to the Wells overpass on a different mission, and I ran into some of our police officers sitting under the bridge in their cars. They were discussing how challenging the problem was that they are facing, and how delicate of a situation that they have to manage.
I happened to walk up to them, and they said, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that a councilwoman just happened into our lives.’ They immediately took me on a tour of what they were experiencing — a walking tour along the river with them. It was really amazing to see them, how they interacted with the homeless population.
I remember one guy had a pretty big sword sticking out of his backpack. You could see the handle. The police officer said, ‘So, what do you got here?’ The guy said, ‘Oh, (The officer) said, ‘Well, you’re going to want to be keeping that in your pack, right? Because we don’t want swords out.’ The guy said, ‘Oh, definitely. Definitely.’
I was pretty amazed with their own social skills and being able to manage this individual without becoming threatening to them.
Anyway, as the tour went on, we saw heaps and piles of refuse, and what has happened is that right behind the baseball park, there’s basically a wall, and that’s where now people have taken to camping. So they have their back up against the wall, they have their little campfire, they have their belongings. That’s also where they go to the bathroom. That part of the river has become one of the most polluted in our entire region.
One of the struggles that we’ve been discussing as a council is how do we deal with human excrement, how do we deal with trash. Just the basic stuff that you can continue to clean it up, clean it up, clean it up, and there’s always more next week. Is there anything we can do in a sustainable way; try to get a handle on that.
I think that is going to continue to be, as far as the council and our staff, most particular in trying to deal with those kinds of issues. Not just the social, but what happens as a result of people camping in that place where, as David pointed out, is very unsafe. No hygiene, no shelter from the weather, etc.

One Truckee River: Last question: In ten years, how do you see the Truckee River existing, contributing, etc. to Reno?

Schieve: Quite frankly, I’d like to see (it) much like the San Antonio River Walk. I would like to see more economic development around the river so people can enjoy it that much more. Some people might disagree with that, but like I said, it’s one of our best assets and it brings the community together.
I want it to be a place . . . that is something that people really want start to educate themselves about . . . and be good to. Also a place where it is the main focus of some of our biggest economic developments’ highlights moving forward in the City of Reno. It’s amazing.
I’ll go through different magazines or different promotions on Reno, and a lot of times the river’s left out of it, and it blows me away because it is such a huge asset. I’d like to see a much more focal point on that, because it’s pretty amazing.
It’s funny, when I had an interview with (Las Vegas Mayor) Carolyn Goodman when we were down (in Las Vegas), we were both doing interviews for a television station. . . . They asked us what is the one thing that you would steal from the other if you could. I said, of course, their entertainment in Las Vegas, because we don’t have that kind of entertainment here. And she said the Truckee River. It kind of speaks magnitudes of an incredible area that we live in.

Bobzien: I would say that it’s important to answer that question with a look back quickly at, we have made amazing strides improving the condition of the river, the whole attitude about the river in the last 10-15 years.
I’m confident that we’re going to stay on that same trajectory and I’m excited about what the future holds for this river. It is a slam dunk, the love that people have for the Truckee River, and the ideas and excitement that have kept them around it.
But when we hear from people that come from out of town — let’s say a mother that comes and she wants to find a nice place to go with her child, a young child, for a couple hours in the middle of the day. She goes down to the Truckee River and she (says), ‘I don’t quite feel safe.’
That could be for a variety of conditions and factors, but I hope that goes away and it becomes a more of a welcoming place for all people. To get there is going to require us to do better with our service and situation to address homelessness. It’s going to require us to do better when it comes to public safety.
There’s also the issue of the resource itself that needs to be dealt with, that feeds into this issue. But . . . what I hope what we see in the future is that we have more positive reviews about how great the Truckee is as a place to be and interact with the community and with our neighbors.

Duerr: Just to wrap up, . . . I’ll just say that what I’d like to see is it be safe, clean, family-friendly with a real focus on arts and entertainment. Basically celebrating Reno’s life. And if people look back in ten yeas and say, ‘What did they do about the river? How did they enhance the river?’
I want people to say Reno got it right.