Commentary - Homeless camps damage California’s levees; proposed legislation would protect the barriers

By Sacramento Vice Mayor Jeff Harris and Elena Lee Reeder, Special to CalMatters | 

California’s homeless crisis is one of the state’s top issues, but the least discussed aspect of this broad problem is the damage these homeless encampments cause to our levees.

Too often unauthorized encampments threaten not just the environment, but many California communities. Large trenches dug into the side of levees impact the integrity and stability of our protective barriers that are engineered to keep our homes and community from flooding.

Reclamation District 1000, which provides flood protection for more than 60,000 acres in the Natomas Basin with over 100,000 residents in Sacramento and Sutter counties, is experiencing a rapid and unprecedented increase in encampments along the district’s levee system. 

Ten years ago we had fewer than 10 encampments along the American River, today we have more than 100 encampments. The problem is that the tents, while providing privacy and shelter, frequently hide trenches as deep as 10 feet carved into the levees to create a flat surface. That adds up to a dangerous situation in a city like Sacramento that relies on levees to protect communities from flooding. 

Large storms could bring fast water in our rivers and canals, damaging our levees and impacting the overall integrity. In the Natomas Basin, some areas of the community could be under 22 feet of water with a catastrophic levee break.

Local flood control engineers routinely survey our levees looking for erosion, but the increased number of encampments is making monitoring and maintenance unworkable and unsafe. The deep trenches under tents must be fixed immediately or we risk the failure of our levee system.

Under the law, flood control agencies have the responsibility for monitoring the levees but lack the legal authority to relocate encampments from these critical areas. Without this authority, the process for agencies like the Reclamation District to respond to levee intrusion is complicated and time intensive. 

This impedes the district from carrying out its responsibility to monitor, maintain, rebuild, construct and operate the levee system. Failure to act could jeopardize the residents who live and work in the Natomas Basin and other areas whose homes are protected by the levee system.

Last year, lawmakers introduced legislation giving flood control districts the authority to have encampments relocated. Unfortunately, the legislation bogged down in committee and never made it to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature.

This year, Assemblymembers Jim Cooper of Elk Grove, and Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, are again working to fix this problem by introducing Assembly Bill 1958. This measure will protect our levees, and those across the state, from unauthorized excavations and enable regular maintenance and inspection critical to flood season preparation. 

We urge the Legislature and the public to support this important public safety bill. 

While the state and city leaders continue to dedicate needed resources to shelter and housing programs for our homeless population, they must be just as committed to addressing the immediate threats to our regional levee systems that protect our communities. This is an important start to protecting our region’s levees and the families and lives those levees protect. We must provide our flood control agencies the right tools to respond before disaster strikes.

Jeff Harris is Sacramento’s vice mayor and represents the 3rd City Council District, Elena Lee Reeder is a trustee for Reclamation District 1000, They wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's Capitol works and why it matters.

Copyright by Elk Grove News © 2020. All right reserved.


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