The parkway will improve recreational opportunities and provide a badly needed transportation alternative. Additionally, the parkway will connect Sacramento to the coming Great California Delta Trail – a multi-use trail and bike lanes to the 500 miles of the San Francisco Bay Trail.
But the completion of the parkway will also bring needed improvements to a levee that serves primarily to protect us from flooding. So, we were disturbed to read in the August 15 Pocket News that Dave Williams, a levee maintenance supervisor, opposes completion of the parkway.
“As far as I know, my department is not for it because of maintenance issues,” he announces. “And that’s our stand on it.” We are sincerely grateful for the work that Mr. Williams and his coworkers do, but we hope he is mistaken when he said that his employer opposes the parkway.
Nine private fences and gates stand in the way of the parkway’s completion – and fewer than 70 homes behind those fences increase risks for tens of thousands. In the 95831 zip code alone – Greenhaven/Pocket – the population exceeds 40,000, but fewer than 50 homes sit behind levee fences here.
Mr. Williams apparently does not know that his employer – the Department of Water Resources – objected bitterly to encroachment permits for levee fences in the late 60s and early 70s. Fences had already caused serious erosion when they caught debris and directed the river’s flow against the levee.
DWR also objected that private fences and gates had increased the cost of routine maintenance because of the time needed to get through each locked gate.
In 2005, the chief engineer of the Reclamation Board – the body that considered encroachment permit applications then – raised the safety objection when residents wanted another fence. And in 2011, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representative raised similar objections and announced the Corps’ opposition to new cross-levee fences.
But that begs the question, if new fences and gates are bad, aren’t existing fences a problem? Yes, they are. In 1998, to address the debris-loading problem, a new state law required that fences be “removable in segments” and that permittees remove the fences as the river rises. Property owners sued. Rather than fight the lawsuit, DWR caved and paid to build five removable fences.
But, since then, DWR has been asleep at the switch in requiring permittees to remove fences as the river rises. As the Corps’ representative said in 2011, “[W]e talk about removable fences, but human nature is they’re not going to remove it. By the time they figure out the water is coming up, they’re trying to do other things.” In fact, levee damage is evident today under at least two “removable” fences.
Good luck finding the permittee to remove the fence anyway. Of the named permittees, we learned last year that at least three permittees were deceased, at least two had sold their property, one was in the name of a neighbor who doesn’t “own” the fence, and one was held by a neighborhood association that likely has no appreciable assets.
Why are assets important? Because permittees have indemnified the state – that is, they have agreed to defend and reimburse the state if their fences and gates cause damage. Deceased permittees don’t remove fences and they aren’t going to reimburse the state.
So, what about the four fences that aren’t removable? In one case, we don’t need to wait for the river to deposit debris against the fence. For two years or more, large debris piles have been heaped against the fence and Mr. Williams’ employer has done nothing about it.
In another case, concertina razor wire – the stuff that tops prison fences – extends from a fence to the river to discourage anyone from skirting the fence. This concertina wire will put Mr. Williams and his coworkers at risk if they need to clear debris or remove this fence during high water.
What’s worse, this fence is at the upriver end of a Sacramento city park – but the park is pretty much closed to anyone but boaters and adjacent residents anyway. The park’s closure presumably protects the privacy of the residents who have gates into this “public” park, even though taxpayers shelled out $1.1 million to settle a five-year lawsuit over ownership of the property.
Right now, the levee doesn’t meet Corps’ standards for adequate access to the levee. The parkway will solve that. The Central Valley Flood Protection Plan calls for all-weather roads on levees. The parkway will solve that with a paved trail constructed without flood funds.
As Mr. Williams notes, “When you get 10,000 other pairs of eyes (observing the levee’s condition), it’s definitely to everybody’s advantage.” DWR recently proposed that neighborhood-watch-type organizations patrol levees for safety issues. You don’t get that when neighbors can keep their neighbors off the levee. The parkway will solve that, too.
Private fences and gates serve the interests of a few while exposing the rest of us to greater risk. Mr. Williams’ employer seems to be complicit by failing to enforce the law and the conditions of encroachment permits. We need DWR to look out for those of us who are at risk from flooding in the Pocket, Little Pocket, and adjoining neighborhoods. Maintaining the status quo will not serve those interests.
Friends of the Sacramento River Parkway