Sunday, 14 July 2024

Corps' levee ratings raise questions for county officials

 Since the list came out, however, flood control districts around California – which had 37 levees on the list – have reacted with frustration and, in some cases, outrage to the list, saying that federal and state governments have, in some cases, hampered upkeep of critical levee systems.

That appears to be the case in Lake County as well. Included on the list was the Middle Creek levee system near Upper Lake.

Tom Smythe, water resources engineer with the Water Resource Division of Lake County's Public Works Department, said the Corps used one inspection from 2005 – which, he said, the county wasn't even aware was taking place – to rate the Middle Creek 11-mile levee system.

Smythe said the county has remained in compliance with standards. “The state inspects us twice a year, every year, and has been doing that for awhile.”

In the past 10 years, Smythe said, Middle Creek's levees have been rated either as “compliant” or “satisfaction,” and the county had no knowledge of there being any issue until it received notification of the Corps' levee rating early in January.

Smythe explained that the Corps built the levee system in 1958, and the agency which later became the Lake County Watershed Protection District took over the levees' maintenance in 1959, although Smythe said the Corps had promised to do any necessary repair work.

“We maintain the levees and the state owns them,” he explained. “Which is why the state inspects us.”

The county-maintained levee system runs along Middle Creek west of Upper Lake; on the north side of Scotts Creek between Middle Creek and Tule Lake; along the Clover diversion channel north of Upper Lake; on Clover Creek north of Upper Lake; and along a stretch of Alley Creek, Smythe said.

The county does not maintain levees in the Middle Creek Reclamation District, which were turned over to the state in 2000. In 1983, said Smythe, the Corps decided those levees were substandard and refused to repair them after a flood that year caused some damage to the structures.

“We basically fought that decision politically for three years,” said Smythe, but lost anyway, and eventually relinquished them to the state.

Smythe explained that parts of the county-maintained levees do need work. One spot, the Clover Creek diversion weir, has design deficiencies, he said. The county is working with Robinson Rancheria. who obtained a grant to modify the weir for hitch passage in the spring. That work, said Smythe, would make the weir sustainable.

There are also maintenance issues with the original Clover Creek channel on Upper Lake's east side, said Smythe, which the county Watershed Protection District maintains in partnership with the state Department of Water Resources (DWR).

DWR, said Smythe, has gone back and forth between claiming responsibility for the channel and not. The county doesn't have maintenance easements for that channel, which complicates work considerably, he said. The county did, however, get each property owners' permission last year in order to remove vegetation and sediment from the channel.

“We have a question whether it is really our responsibility or not to do that,” said Smythe.

Corps officials last week said vegetation – particularly trees, brush and weeds – were significant problems for levees, particularly because they prevented inspection for such problems as structural issues, erosion and animal damage.

The Corps' levee ratings of Middle Creek cited tree growth in the main channel, which Smythe said the county has worked to address. However, he noted, the Department of fish & Game (DFG) has placed limitations on what vegetation can be removed.

If the county followed the Corps' manual on levee maintenance, Smythe said, there would be nothing taller than grass on the levees, “which really isn't healthy for the stream.”

After finding out that Middle Creek's levees were on the list, Smythe said the county sent the Army Corps of Engineers a letter, explaining the situation with Clover Creek weir but also addressing other parts of the inspection.

For example, said Smythe, the Corps marked down Middle Creek's levees due to gravel bars which Smythe said have already been removed. The Corps also noted vegetation on levee patrol roads that has been removed as well, he said.

One particularly glaring mistake in the Corps' levee inspection report, said Smythe, was that the Corps stated that 3.5 miles of the county's levees weren't wide enough and therefore were substandard. That stretch of levee, Smythe said, is the area the county gave to DWR in 2000, and is no longer the county's responsibility.

Since the list of levees came out Corps officials reported that the agency has already begun reinspections of certain areas, which have resulted in some levees coming off the list.

Smythe hopes that will hold true for Middle Creek's levees, which are due for reinspection Feb. 14 by the Corps and DWR.

In the worst-case scenario, if the levees aren't removed from the list and the ratings don't improve, Smythe said the county would lose out on government funds to repair levee breaks in case of flooding.

“If there were a major levee break that required half a million dollars in repair, the corps would not do that; either the county or the state would have to do that,” he said.

The Corps' list of poorly maintained levees is concurrent with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) effort that is under way to remap levees, Smythe said.

FEMA in the past several weeks notified the county that the mapping process could result in flood elevations changing, which would require some property owners around Upper Lake to carry flood insurance when they hadn't previously, he said.

However, FEMA has since told the county that they don't have the funding necessary to do all the mapping at this time, said Smythe, and are instead concentrating on completing the project for urban areas first.

“It does not look like they will have the funds to do remapping in Lake County until next fiscal year,” he said.

“It's the reality of federal government funding,” he said. “That doesn't mean the issue is going away.”

Smythe added, however, that he believe FEMA's project may not have much worth. “They aren't using real detailed methods, so it's a poor quality product,” he said.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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