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State flood board suddenly loves fences, but why?

By R.E. Graswich
November 2023

It’s not easy to get a state agency to do what you want, especially when the request involves breaking rules and ignoring precedents and safety concerns.

But somehow, property owners near the Sacramento River levee turned the Central Valley Flood Protection Board into an ally.

They convinced the flood board’s top bureaucrat to authorize temporary fences that block public access to the levee.

They persuaded Executive Officer Christopher Lief to apparently violate the California Code of Regulations and approve the fences without public notice or board approval.

Finally, they pulled three other public agencies and two state legislators into the controversy, turning them into accessories.

A four-month investigation by Inside Sacramento discovered friendly relationships between several property owners and flood board staff soon after the flood agency underwent leadership changes this year.

But the investigation hasn’t answered one big question: Why would a state flood agency suddenly bow to a group of property owners?

Emails obtained under freedom of information requests reveal flood board staff used collegial, first-name references for property owners near the levee who acted as go-between for neighbors.

The residents met with flood inspectors, spoke on behalf of fence contractors and handled the $500 fees required for fence authorizations.

“I have left the checks in Wendy’s cubicle underneath her keyboard. She will process next time she’s in,” flood board engineer Dennis Bartolome tells his boss, Selva Selvamohan, Sacramento levee chief, in an email, after receiving fee payments from residents.

Bartolome explains one resident “mentioned to me that the contractors had to slightly maneuver the fence… Hence the zig-zag configuration.”

The fences were installed haphazardly and fast. They follow a drunk’s sloppy path, scattered across the levee toward the river. Flood board inspectors see no problems. An email from inspector Karina Castro says, “They did a good job placing the blocks along the slope.”

A lawyer for the property owners monitors the process. As the fences go up, the lawyer sends an email to the flood board team: “Thank you all for the help in resolving this issue. We look forward to continued positive dialogue.”

Missing from the emails are explanations for the flood board’s reversal of practice and apparent violation of California Code of Regulations Title 23, which requires public notice and board approval for levee fences. For nearly two decades, the flood board allowed no new fences.

Lief tells me via email his fence authorizations “appropriately balance the needs and desires of property owners to protect their private property from trespass.”

His words are contradicted by flood board general counsel Jit Dua, who advised property owners to take their trespass concerns to local police.

The flood board’s sudden love for fences created headaches for other organizations, including the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, Department of Water Resources and Army Corps of Engineers.

The agencies previously expressed safety concerns about levee fences, gates and other encroachments. They wanted encroachments removed. Now they distance themselves from the new fences.

SAFCA and the Corps refuse to comment on the authorizations. Water Resources say they don’t allow dangerous fences but won’t explain why the new fences are safe.

Two state legislators who represent Sacramento believe the fences will disappear once the city completes its levee bike trail over the next three years. In theory, they’re right.

The city is building an equity trail, linking Meadowview to Downtown. The property owners concede the levee trail is coming. But they won’t sell their easements and are forcing the city into eminent domain acquisition.

Assemblywoman Stephanie Nguyen and State Sen. Angelique Ashby support the bike path. Neither will discuss why the flood board authorized new fences that must eventually be torn down.

Lief joined the flood board in April with no apparent flood experience. He spent the pandemic as a facility planning director for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Before that, he was a budget manager, auditor and hazardous substance scientist.

Lief has 30 years with the state. He signed the fence authorizations in May, five weeks after he arrived. A man in a hurry. Why?

The October Inside Pocket column mischaracterized “concerns” by resident Mark Portuondo about persons walking and riding bikes behind homes near the Sacramento River levee. Portuondo was not specific about his “concerns.”

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

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