Monday, February 04, 2008

The Gravel Pit That Became a Lake

For more than quarter century, travelers heading west on Interstate 80 knew they had reached the city of Sparks when they passed a big gravel pit. Between 1968 and 1995, the Helms gravel pit, as it was called, provided millions of tons of rock for area road and construction projects.

In 1987, however, the pit, which had grown to more than 100 feet deep, was closed when Sparks officials discovered petroleum chemicals and solvents seeping into the hole. They traced the contamination to a massive spill at an oil tank farm located about a mile west.

As a result, the pit was designated a Toxic Superfund site and a major cleanup effort was undertaken. The city of Sparks took possession of the site in 1996, after tests showed that the groundwater in the pit was free of petrochemicals and other dangerous substances.

At that time, city officials proudly announced plans to convert the former gravel pit into a park and recreational pond using millions of dollars in fees and fines paid by those responsible for the contamination. The original idea was to fill the pit with water to a depth of approximately 30 feet, which, it was estimated, might take several years.

Then along came Mother Nature. In January 1997, the Reno-Sparks area experienced the highest recorded flooding in its history. The Truckee River overflowed its banks and an estimated one billion gallons of water poured into the hole. Overnight, the Sparks gravel pit had become Nevada’s newest body of water.

The unexpected lake, now called the Sparks Marina, is 100 feet deep and covers about 77 acres. Ironically, in order to keep the water at a constant, desirable level, every day the city pumps approximately 2.3 million gallons from the lake into the Truckee River.

While some sport fish have been introduced into the lake, including rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout, it may include other species that accidentally spilled into it during the 1997 flooding.

In the past decade, the city has developed the area around the lake, installing two public beaches, picnic areas, sand volleyball courts, bicycle and hiking trails and boat ramps. When the weather is nice, the marina grounds quickly fill with people.

The lake has also become a popular spot for casual sailing and kayaking as well as the site of several recent professional wakeboarding competitions. The latter is a surface water sport that involves riding atop a lightweight wakeboard (it resembles a small surfboard) that is pulled by a speedboat.

At the marina’s east edge, the city allowed development of a small condominium complex, where the homeowners have access to the lake via a small canal.

Additionally, the city approved a 1.35 million square foot retail, resort and dining complex, called the Legends at Sparks Marina, also on the east side of the marina.

Scheduled to open later this year, the first phase of the project will include a 250,000-square-foot Scheels sporting goods store, a dinosaur-themed restaurant, T. Rex, created by the founders of the Rainforest Café chain, the Saddle Ranch Chop House and Cantina Corona.

Additionally, the city has announced that Olympia Gaming will build a $500 million casino, resort and spa as part of the development. The project will eventually include 1,000 hotel rooms, convention space and a lakefront amphitheater.

Not too bad for a former gravel pit.