When the Levee Broke

How a boy reporter stopped a flood with a letter

Photo by Keith MayIt's still known as the Fletcher Flood Control Basin, this 5-acre plot of dirt on a bend in the Santa Ana River in the city of Orange. During the past five years, however, the so-called "basin" has been filled with so much dirt and junk that it has become a flat field—and, consequently, incapable of protecting the nearby homes, apartments and elementary school from floods during severe rains.

The filling of the Fletcher Flood Control Basin was the surreptitious work of the county, performed in contradiction to its own policies, not to mention state and federal laws. Since 1994, more than 60,000 cubic yards of dirt—enough to fill more than 320 rail cars—were poured into the once-massive hole. The idea was to convert the site into developable land.

But county records obtained through the California Public Records Act show officials went ahead with the dumping even though county engineers knew it would place the nearby residential neighborhood—near the corner of Fletcher Street and Batavia Avenue—in danger of flooding during severe rainstorms.

Add to that the fact that the county filled in Fletcher without complying with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The Flood Control District never conducted any biological analysis to determine what animal and plant life lived in the basin. There was no Environmental Impact Report identifying the impacts of so much dumping. The county also never conducted any engineering study of how the addition of that much dirt might affect the surrounding neighborhood during severe rains. Finally, county officials never obtained any construction permits from either the California Department of Fish and Game or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, despite a 1994 study on potential Fletcher work that stated such permits "will be required for construction."

There is reason to believe this shoddy record of compliance really bothers the county. On May 2—24 hours after I hand-delivered a public-records request concerning Fletcher—the county ceased all work on the basin and pulled all its heavy equipment off the site. There has been no work there since.

"There was standing water in that basin for 50 years," said one individual connected to the Flood Control District who personally witnessed the county's work on Fletcher. "Until recently, the county was adding fresh dirt every day. Are they endangering people? Are the people who live near the basin going to have to buy flood insurance? And who knows what wildlife, what endangered species might have lived here? This is an example of the county simply not understanding the consequences of what it does."

On April 12, a few weeks before I made my public-records request, a photographer and I visited the Fletcher Flood Control Basin. Two muddy orange bulldozers sat near the front gate. Both bore the Orange County logo on their cab doors and were apparently waiting to continue their land-filling duties. Small hills of dirt lined the site's northeast edge, infested with watermelon-sized chunks of concrete, waste paper, an old trashcan and a shopping cart—evidence of the quality of the fill the county was dumping into what was once a basin. Five days later, a third dozer was spotted in the middle of the site, parked next to a new dirt mound.

These days, it's difficult to imagine Fletcher as anything but a flat field. But a topographical map of Fletcher drawn in March 1951 shows the site as a 20-foot-deep pit. County records show Fletcher remained this way until 1985, when officials authorized a partial fill of the basin. But that work was minimal and still left Fletcher with considerable flood-control capacity.

Today, Fletcher would be virtually useless in the event of a flood—and a Feb. 29 e-mail obtained by the Weekly shows that at least one Flood Control engineer clearly realizes this.

"It is apparent from the pictures that the basin's storage capacity is much less than the original condition," wrote engineer Lance Natsuhara. "In fact, it appears that virtually no storage capcity [sic] remains."

That's not a good sign, especially considering the information contained in the project studies that do exist concerning Fletcher. In late 1994, after the Flood Control District unofficially decided that the Fletcher Basin was "surplus property" —but while it was still actually a functioning basin—the agency commissioned a report to determine how best to make the property developable. That report ultimately recommended that engineers improve the drainage channel that fed into and out of Fletcher before doing any work to the basin itself. It prescribed that only when that work was completed could "the basin . . . be filled with surplus material."

The county never implemented any of the recommended improvements, but that didn't stop it from filling the basin anyway. County program manager Herb Nakasone contended the determination that the basin wasn't useful for flood control made it possible for "our maintenance people to start filling it in slowly." But according to an internal Flood Control District memo obtained by the Weekly, Nakasone's explanation doesn't hold water.

"The downstream improvements of the channel have to be in place if alteration to the basin is made," stated the Nov. 19, 1999, memo. "If improvement is done only at the basin, flooding will likely occur downstream."

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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