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How a state flood agency forgot who it serves

By R.E. Graswich
August 2023

There’s no easy way to say this. A state agency is helping affluent property owners barricade an equity gateway for many of Sacramento’s poorest, non-white residents.

If this sounds impossible today in California, here’s how it happened.

In recent months, the Central Valley Flood Protection Board overstepped its responsibilities for flood maintenance and operations. The state agency became the literal gatekeeper for residents along the Sacramento River levee who want to keep outsiders out.

In May, Central Valley Flood approved two temporary fence permits to block the levee in the Pocket neighborhood. Private fence panels, gates, chains and locks went up within 48 hours.

The fence permits were granted without public hearings. There was no discussion, no transparency. Property owners asked for fences. Central Valley Flood staff said yes.

I asked Central Valley Flood staff for explanations. I received responses that exposed the agency’s cozy relationship with private property owners along the river. Consider this excerpt from Chris Lief, executive officer at Central Valley Flood:

“The board’s authorizations appropriately balance the concerns of property owners, namely their desire to protect their private property from trespass.”

There are problems here. First, it suggests the Central Valley Flood Protection Board approved the temporary fences. But there was no board action. Fences were secretly approved by flood agency staff.

Second, it introduces a false narrative about a need to “balance the concerns of property owners.” Central Valley Flood has no duty to balance anything for property owners. The agency’s job is flood protection.

There’s no legal requirement to hand out levee encroachment permits. The Department of Water Resources says fences cause trouble with levee maintenance and flood preparedness.

Lief insists these aren’t permanent fences, which require approval by the actual flood board—seven people appointed by the governor. He writes:

“Each encroachment permit application for a cross-levee fence will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and will be brought to the board for consideration at a future board meeting. The public will have an opportunity to provide input (support or objection).”

Pardon me for thinking it’s a short step from temporary to permanent fences. If Central Valley Flood staff worries about property owners and “their desire to protect private property from trespass,” the board must remind staff why the agency exists—to prevent floods, not build fences.

The fence approvals reversed years of permit denials by Central Valley Flood in Pocket and Little Pocket. Central Valley Flood board members knew fence permits would embolden a small group of property owners who despise the idea of people riding bikes on the levee.

Which includes people from Meadowview.

Here’s where the fence mess gets ugly. Levee fences complicate the city’s effort to finish the river bike trail from Meadowview to Downtown. Fences insult civic attempts to provide equity and inclusion through parks and transit options.

It took decades, but after unanimous City Council votes and support from regional governments, the river parkway bike trail is funded. Plans are to pave the levee top after Army Corps of Engineers contractors finish levee restorations, likely in 2025.

City officials tell me new fences won’t stop the bike trail. But fences don’t make the job easier. Their presence speaks to tone-deaf state authorities worried about complaints from a few extremist neighbors, dismissing the benefits of linking Meadowview to the river parkway.

The Meadowview trail will run through Bill Conlin park on Freeport Boulevard, join the levee and head north. The project is the city’s biggest, loudest statement about the urgency of equity and inclusion.

Please remember some realities. Meadowview residents endure the lowest incomes in South Sacramento. Almost half the households make less than $40,000 annually. Meadowview is a minority-majority community. About 60% of residents are Brown, Black or Asian.

Central Valley Flood Executive Officer Lief says his agency has no control over recreation on the levee. He’s strictly a flood maintenance and operations guy. But aligned with property owners, approving their demands for fences, Central Valley Flood becomes a tool of bigotry.

Show me another state agency that gets away with that.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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