Just another day in Corruptionville

I was into the County Administration Building today with another active citizen to look into what the County Counsel’s office had produced on a California Public Records Act request.

We were examining the documents and discussing them in a conference room. The conversation with the assistant counsel was going pleasantly, in fact in such a civilized fashion I was beginning to become disoriented and a little dizzy.

Only for a moment, however.

Soon enough the County Counsel barged into the room imperiously and told us we could not meet in that conference room, but had to go to another conference room. I felt more relaxed immediately.

He marched ahead and we followed to the other conference room. There he left us, with the door open onto the second-floor elevator lobby.

The rest of the meeting conducted amid lobby clatter after the obligatory petty county harassment of the public, I realized my pulse had returned to normal.

Returning home to peruse the daily news clips, I came across the following in the Merced Sun-Star:

Black Rascal Creek dam hasn’t made it past drafting table
By Leslie Albrecht
Last Updated: April 5, 2006, 06:20:51 AM PDT

A long-delayed reservoir could have prevented the major flooding that soaked the county Tuesday, according to Merced Irrigation District officials.
Five dams protect Merced from floods, and local officials have been lobbying Congress for decades to get a sixth dam constructed.
"If that project would have been in place today that could have mitigated or completely avoided the problems that we have," said MID Assistant General Manager Ted Selb. "The projects that we do have in place worked perfectly."

These people have only one speed: blaming another level of government for their own version of planning, which is to violate the laws of all superior jurisdictions as long as they can get away with it. Yet these same local officials are always lobbying Congress for more, more, and more infrastructure so that they and their friends can make big boodle on more and more growth. You could get the impression that they felt entitled, although they all have the dimmest views of entitlement. But when they don't get exactly what they want, they stamp their petty feet. Local leadership is really quite bewildering from a public point of view. I guess we're just suckers for a good comedy show.

Over the past 60 years the Army Corps of Engineers has built five flood retention projects surrounding the city. They include dams on Owens Creek, Burns Creek, Mariposa Creek and Bear Creek, and a reservoir near the former Castle Air Force Base.
Those dams stay dry for most of the year, said Selb. Their sole purpose is to intercept and store water during "high runoff events" and meter the water out through a pipe.
The only major stream without a dam is Black Rascal Creek.

Aha! Learn well, Merced. If the flooding gets worse – and the fabrications in this story suggests at least some local officials believe there is a strong likelihood it will – blame it on the Army Corps of Engineers, the very agency that has said, in essence, the University of California built the first phase of its Merced campus at its own risk because it did not even apply for the Clean Water Act permit required, and administrated by the Army Corps of Engineers, which ought to know, you see.

The Corps of Engineers has been in the process of building a flood control project for Black Rascal Creek since the early 1980s, but the project has never made it past the design phase, said Supervisor Deidre Kelsey.
The reservoir could have prevented the flooding this week, said Kelsey, as well as the serious floods in 1997 and 1998.
"Unfortunately the federal government never finished this series of water control projects and left the locals holding the bag," said Kelsey.
Called the Haystack Reservoir, the reservoir was slated to be built on land now set aside as part of the University of California, Merced's environmental mitigation.

Oh my! Two unpleasant sounds: fingernails scratching at cliff face on the way down; and the scratching of reckless rewrites of history. Kelsey’s only problem with UC Merced was that her husband’s ranch wasn’t included in the area suitable for getting fat conservation easements from the state because state officials evidently felt that vernal pools did not frequently occur amongst the Snelling dredge tailings. Since the famous university was in its planning stages, Kelsey’s fundamental political contribution to the massive speculative growth surrounding the campus has been to tell a group of influential farm leaders anything and everything that would keep them from looking at what was happening to Merced County agriculture – in the name of preserving Merced County agriculture.

She’s very good at this kind of double-talk and is only rarely caught in an out-and-out lie. But now local officials for the first time are facing the consequences of their catastrophic speculative growth boom in a valley, which among its other indubitable charms, on occasion floods. That’s where the rich agricultural soil comes from.

Now, listen to truly vintage One Merced Whine, delivered by a talented local lark, who, frequently leads One Merced Whine delegations to choir tours to Sacramento and Washington to lobby the very agencies that here she treats here with her county manners.

Now local officials are starting from scratch with an alternate project, said Kelsey, with $200,000 scraped together by Congressman Dennis Cardoza.
The alternative project could divert water from Black Rascal Creek and Bear Creek, carry it around Merced, then move it toward the grassland south of Merced where the water could flow back into the Merced and San Joaquin rivers.
One possible source of funding could be the governor's bond initiative, said Kelsey.
With at least 10 agencies involved in the next phase of the project, it could take years for the flood control system to be built, said Kelsey.
Working with federal government has been a slow and bureaucratic process, said Kelsey, who first met with the Corps of Engineers about the Haystack Reservoir in 1995.
Kelsey said she's seen seven engineers cycle through the project over the course of 10 years. It took 10 years of negotiations to install a new head gate on Edendale Creek, said Kelsey.
"I'm trying to work on it, but it's been very frustrating, because it's an inevitable situation that we'll flood again," said Kelsey. "But we're not prepared because we don't have jurisdiction over waters of the United States and we need cooperation from the federal government as well as numerous departments at the state level."

She just don’t have jurisdiction over the waters of the United States. If she just had that, everything would go better, particularly out in Snelling where ground water associated with Kelsey aggregate mining just keeps rising to the surface and flooding the neighbors.

Columns in both the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times this morning hit another, more owlish note, however, on behalf of the state’s taxpayers, presently on the hook for bailing out local jurisdictions that just don’t have authority over flooding surface waters of the United States.

Dan Walters, the Bee columnist, who lives in Roseville where creeks rise as rapidly as subdivisions sprawl, put it bluntly:

If locals want land-use power, they should share flood liability
Sacramento Bee – 4/5/06
By Dan Walters, Sac Bee columnist

Everyone knows that it's risky to build large tracts of homes beside flood-prone rivers, but developers and local governments, especially in the fast-growing Sacramento area, are continuing to do it with little regard for the potential consequences - because financially and legally, they are protected from the consequences.
As long as the subdivisions comply with very outdated federal floodplain maps, or the promoters have obtained some sort of exemption from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there are no restrictions or flood insurance requirements. And under a recent state appellate court decision, if a levee fails and nearby homes are flooded, the state of California is liable, not developers or the local governments that approve the housing plans.
That court decision, involving a 1986 levee break in Yuba County that cost the state nearly a half-billion dollars, put the bifurcation of authority and responsibility in sharp focus. Local governments can approve all the housing they want next to levees in full knowledge that the state alone is liable for any flood damage, even though the state has no authority over development decisions. ...

Editorial: Before the levees break
Los Angeles Times – 4/5/06

IMAGES OF THE LINGERING devastation in New Orleans should be enough to persuade anyone not to bet the safety of their house or business on aging levees.
But Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) doesn't want to rely on voluntary efforts in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river valleys. His bill, AB 1898, would require all property owners in those watersheds to buy federal flood insurance if they faced at least a 1-in-200-years chance of flooding.
That mandate goes far beyond the current requirement, which applies only to those who obtain a mortgage or home-equity loan in areas with at least a 1-in-100-year risk.
The 1,600 miles of levees in the Central Valley are aging and vulnerable, and the low-lying area they protect — from Sacramento to the Bay Delta — floods with alarming frequency. Just Tuesday, levees broke in Merced and south of Sacramento, flooding a trailer park and fields.
It's not clear how many homes and businesses in the area are insured, but Jones offers a disturbing snapshot of North Natomas, a booming Sacramento district ringed by rivers. According to Jones, only 16% of the properties there have flood insurance.
The point isn't simply to protect property owners against their own shortsightedness. It's to protect taxpayers who'll probably have to bail them out when the floods inevitably come. The insurance requirement not only would create a pool of federal money for repairs but would prod developers to raise buildings above ground level and choose safer plots.
More important, the bill asks property owners to shoulder some of the cost and risk of living in an area that state and federal taxpayers are being asked to spend billions to protect. On Monday, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee added $22.3 million for California levee projects to an emergency funding bill. Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who declared a state of emergency Feb. 24 over the levees, has called for at least $2.5 billion for upgrades.
The levees do more than protect property owners' investments; they help safeguard critical supplies of drinking water for the whole state. And they have enabled a boom in developments such as North Natomas, where houses have been built on top of what used to be flood-prone farms and wetlands...

To return to the fable told in the final paragraph Merced Sun-Star,

It will also take cooperation at the local level, said MID officials. There is no flood control agency in eastern Merced County, said Selb, and the response to this week's flooding was a coordinated effort involving MID, the county, and the city.
"MID is not a flood control agency, we're an irrigation district," said Selb. "Because of our expertise and because of our equipment, we collaborate and work closely with the county."

Public documents suggest another story. The Merced Sun-Star, which never reads public documents, could not, of course, have been expected to know.

In addition to providing irrigation water the District also uses its existing irrigation distribution system for local flood control by routing local foothills runoff and stream flood waters away from populated areas. The district formed the Merced Irrigation District Drainage District #1 in 1994. At the end of 2004, there were approximately 11,000 residential, commercial, industrial and governmental parcels located primarily within the urban area of the District that received drainage and flood protection service.

Merced Irrigation District audited financial statements

Exert authority!

Badlands suggests that if the local officials want to do something really useful, having caused to much absorbent pasture uphill to be paved over and so many more homes to be built so close to unruly creeks, they ought to follow the great Persian king, Xerxes, and go out to Black Rascal Creek with whips and lash it, while supervisors Kelsey and Crookham curse it back into its banks. Then do the same with any other creek that dares rise in Merced, home of the first, environmentally friendly, UC campus of the 21st century, and all its attendant subdivisions – all of it built in violation of state and federal environmental law.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will stay home and dry and contemplate why environmental laws were ever written at all. Could at least some of the motive behind these despised acts have been the protection of life and property against rampaging local officials, development corporations, greedy large landowners, realtors and lending institutions, as well as floods?

Bill Hatch