When the Levee Broke

How a boy reporter stopped a flood with a letter

The sole purpose of CEQA is to prevent exactly this kind of action. Signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan in 1970, CEQA requires all public agencies and local governments in California to catalog all the environmental impacts for every proposed project and mitigate them. The CEQA law defines a project as a "direct physical change in the environment."

Nakasone admitted he verbally authorized the work at Fletcher; there are no work orders or permits authorizing the filling operation. Nakasone claimed that no permits or additional studies were necessary because "the filling was never a project—it was a maintenance operation."

Action speaks louder and clearer than Nakasone's doubletalk.

Not only did the county never officially designate Fletcher "surplus" property, but Flood Control District records also indicate county officials always understood that any work at Fletcher required significant study and approval before any construction began.

"It will be necessary to carry out a biological assessment of the channel and basin sites," wrote then-Environmental Management Agency section chief Gary Medeiros in an April 25, 1991, memo. Medeiros went on to describe vegetation and animal life found in the basin and said a "formal wetland delineation should also be conducted."

None of this was ever done.

Three years later, in September 1994, a report prepared by Flood Control engineer Scott Vogel showed the county also understood it needed permission before doing any work at Fletcher. "Permits and approvals from [Army Corps of Engineers], California Department of Fish and Game, and Regional Water Quality Board will be required for construction," wrote Vogel.

None of this was ever done.

In any case, officials at the Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Game Department deny any knowledge of the county dumping dirt into the basin.

Meanwhile, the Weekly's public-records request also turned up records showing considerable herbicide use at Fletcher from 1997 to the present. Warnings attached to these herbicides include "Do not allow to drift onto humans, animals, desirable plants or property" and "Do not apply during irrigation or when run-off is likely to occur."

"Lots of flood-control channels are soft-bottom [meaning the poisons could sink into the soil]," said an individual with intimate knowledge of the dumping at Fletcher. "These guys have been cowboys with herbicides."

Five years after the filling of the Fletcher Flood Control Basin began, Nakasone finally produced an official briefing regarding the site. In his report, he referenced new studies indicating that Fletcher actually did provide useful flood-control protection to the surrounding neighborhoods. And, because of that, the basin was no longer for sale.

But Nakasone didn't mention that the basin was no longer a basin and—according to one Flood Control District source—it would cost at least $1 million to get Fletcher back into shape.

Three weeks later, on April 28, county flood-control engineer Lance Natsuhara sent another e-mail, this one recommending that the county get rid of all the dirt in Fletcher Basin. Nakasone says there are no plans to do so any time soon.

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