Pave It

Levee needs asphalt, sooner the better

By R.E. Graswich
June 2023

Things look good on new sections of the Sacramento River levee. The roadbed gravel is neat and smooth, baking in the summer heat. But wait until winter. Things get ugly when rains come.

I have an idea how much money it costs to repair the levees and bolster them with slurry walls. It’s a big number. The project, which has taken about three years and isn’t finished, carries a price tag of $1.8 billion, paid by taxpayers. Who can bring context to that much money?

People visit the levee to inspect their investment. They walk along the new gravel roadbed and enjoy the views. Sometimes they see new damage, months after Army Corps of Engineers contractors finished another section of seepage walls and levee rehabilitation.

Here’s a damage report: Deep ruts in the roadway from maintenance trucks and flood-watch vehicles. More trouble caused by erosion along levee banks from water runoff. Crews quickly smooth out the ruts. They restore the levee top again and again. Come winter, the cycle repeats. New ruts. More erosion. The roadbed becomes a muddy bog.

Most of these problems disappear when the levee gets paved. An asphalt path provides easy access for maintenance crews and flood watchers in winter and spring. Pavement guides rain water where engineers want it to go, down drainage pipes, not into rivulets carved by erosion along the levee bank.

Another bonus with asphalt: It supports a bike trail and fulfills the promise made by the city in 1975 to create a recreational path for residents to enjoy along the Sacramento River Parkway.

The city is ready to move ahead with the bike trail. Funding is earmarked and set aside. Engineering studies are underway. Paving work begins when levee rehab and slurry wall construction are finished, maybe next year, maybe 2025.

Given that 48 years have passed since the city promised a paved bikeway along the Sacramento River Parkway levee, I entertain a certain cynicism about the project. I’ll believe the asphalt bike path is real when I walk on it.

I know there are people still determined to stop the parkway, a handful of residents who live near the levee and think the river and parkway belongs to them. Their goal is to deny river access to everyone but families and friends.

They can’t succeed. The law’s against them. But they won’t give up until they hear paving crews rolling asphalt along the levee.

Sometimes members of this group send me emails and criticize my campaign to make the levee parkway accessible to everyone. I don’t mind criticism. Most people are civil about it.

My correspondents never dispute the facts. They sidestep and dodge. They ignore how the state controls every aspect of life along the levee, how access gates are permitted or removed by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, how state and federal laws protect river access for everyone.

They don’t question why the Department of Water Resources wants the levees paved (answer: to improve access and safety and prevent endless damage caused by rain and erosion). They don’t acknowledge state authorities are pleased by the city’s parkway initiative, how the flood board supports the city’s plan to pave the levee and open the bike path.

Instead, they launch into political arguments about property rights. One person, inspired by the delusion that he owns the levee and nearly half the Sacramento River near his home, tells me his property rights are “what makes America function and what makes it impossible for many third world nations to thrive.”

His desire to block river access does all that? I had no idea.

I know what these emails really mean. They mean people who live along the levee are afraid. They think perverts will stalk the levee and peep into bedrooms. They think horses and motorcycles will race down the bike trail and homeless people will erect tent cities and burn everything down. Access equals Armageddon.

When a bike path becomes a metaphor for society’s failures, it’s easy to forget how a strip of asphalt simply prevents mud and erosion and gives everyone a lovely place to enjoy.

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

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