A levee designed to protect parts of Napa from flooding has not been properly maintained by the authority designed to operate it, the Napa County grand jury has concluded.
For 40 years, the Napa River Reclamation District (NRRD) “has basically failed to perform its essential mission of levee control and maintenance,” a new 2015-16 grand jury report said.
This Napa River levee stands between the river and 135 homes in the south county outpost of Edgerly Island. But, though the area is remote, the grand jury fears a levee break there might lead to taxpayers throughout the county paying for damage repairs.
Property owners own and maintain their backyard sections of this levee. And, while the grand jury doesn’t say the levee is in immediate danger of failing, it is concerned about a patchwork approach stretching across 150 lots, of which 135 have homes.
The grand jury concluded that the NRRD should either be given the legal tools to regulate the levee or be stripped of flood control authority.
“We haven’t really flooded on the island in a good number of years, since 1983,” NRRD Board of Trustees Chairman Jay Gardner said. “We’ve been doing something right. But I think looking down the road is what the grand jury report is all about.”
The NRRD Board of Trustees held a June 23 meeting at the Edgerly Island Volunteer Fire Department firehouse to begin discussing the grand jury report.
“We are doing our very best to respond to their concerns,” Gardner said. “We are putting our (written) responses together right now. We are obligated by law to respond to everything they are talking about.”
The NRRD website says the district’s main duty is running a sewer treatment facility for the Edgerly and Ingersol tracts, with homeowners paying a $1,149 annual sewer fee. It makes no claim to have any levee maintenance or police powers.
“The stuff they do at the levee is by moral persuasion, at this point,” county Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said.
To that end, the website recommends that homeowners keep their levee sections 10 feet high. It warns that, should their levee section break, they could be liable for damage sustained by neighbors.
But the levee certainly doesn’t look like a uniform, 10-foot-high impenetrable wall. Its size and appearance varies from section to section, as individual-looking as the variety and ages of Edgerly Island homes. One levee section might be ivy-covered, another topped by a gazebo, another bare dirt.
Edgerly Island is a world of water and wetlands, with a towering Erector-set-like railroad drawbridge over the Napa River providing a landmark visible for miles. For 1.5 miles, Dead-end Milton Road has a line of riverfront homes on its eastern side, a kind of linear community.
Gardner, who runs Adventure Cat Sailing Charters in San Francisco, has lived along Milton Road for 38 years. He enthusiastically described the sights that include a pond near the railroad bridge.
“It’s full of fish and shrimp and the white pelicans get out there and they feed en masse,” Gardner said. “It’s just spectacular.”
The community is close-knit, with residents doing such things as attending the annual Christmas party at the firehouse, he said. The wind blowing up the bays keep the temperatures cooler than in the Napa Valley.
Such amenities as supermarkets are several miles away. The Napa River is the star here, with many of the homes having boat docks.
“It’s just a great place to live,” Gardner said. “We find people either love it or they don’t like it at all.”
The Prichett family started the Edgerly Island subdivision in the 1950s. The long Napa River levee extending along the back of the lots was key. The initial idea was property owners would maintain their own levee sections or have it done for them and pay the bill.
During a January 1973 storm, the levee broke in several places, leaving evacuating families trudging through ankle-deep water. Residents petitioned the county in 1974 to form the Edgerly Island Reclamation District – the NRRD’s predecessor—to care for the levee.
A public notice from the time has a long list of petitioners, more than 60 percent of the area’s property owners. It asked the county to form the district to do reclamation maintenance and repair work, with the cost to be assessed upon those benefiting.
A 1974 article in the Napa Register described the hopes of Edgerly Island residents. They wanted a district that could demand property owners properly maintain the levee and order the work done for scofflaws. They worried about the vacant lots and absentee landlords.
“As they say here, you’re only as strong as the weakest levee, which is true,” one property owner said. “So, unless we can protect ourselves down here from these weak levees, what have we got?”
The Board of Supervisors formed the district at a time when, on the national scene, President Richard Nixon tried to weather an 18-minute gap discovered in the Watergate tapes.
Problems arose. By 1978, the Napa County Local Agency Formation Commission said property tax revenue was inadequate to maintain 8,000 feet of levee. It described the levee as being in “moderately good structural shape,” but too short.
The district has tried at times to enforce levee standards. It sued two property owners in 2001 for failing to raise the heights of their levees, but Napa County Superior Court ruled in favor of the residents and said the district can’t file public nuisance lawsuits, the grand jury report said.
Wagenknecht has worked on the Edgerly Island issue because it is in his 1st District as county supervisor. He said the community has done such things as pile up sandbags and filled in weak spots along the levee when the water is high.
One question is the standard of levee the Edgerly Island community would want to have, given the interaction between the properties and the Napa River.
“I can tell you they are not going to build it to an Army Corps of Engineers standard of a levee,” Wagenknecht said. “That would probably ruin the property for most of those people.”
The grand jury report doesn’t say what must be done to put the levee in tip-top shape. But a 2005 report by the Napa County Local Agency Formation Commission cites an engineer’s preliminary estimate putting the cost at $3 million to $7 million. Variables ranged from soil conditions to permit requirements.
One potential solution to the levee issue is to have property owners pay an assessment so the NRRD can create a levee with uniform standards and maintenance. The grand jury report notes several occasions in past decades when Edgerly Island property owners declined to go that route.
It’s unclear how big an assessment each property owner would have to pay for levee repairs and maintenance. The number of properties is relatively small to bear any large costs, such as the possible $3 million or more in upgrades mentioned in the Local Agency Formation Commission report.
The grand jury report mentions the possibility of NRRD simply getting out of the levee-maintenance business. Its unclear which agency, if any, would take over the duties.
The Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District has tackled flood control elsewhere in the county. But District Engineer Phillip Miller questioned whether it would want to take on Edgerly Island liabilities with no funding solutions at hand.
He talked about the seriousness of undertaking oversight of a levee.
“It’s not just a pile of dirt,” Miller said. “It’s supposed to be water tight. It’s a big deal.
The grand jury report said the Napa County Counsel’s Office refused to answer questions about liabilities faced by the NRRD and county over the levee situation. It asked the Board of Supervisors to order County Counsel to provide a written opinion that will be made public.
All parties with oversight over the NRRD either know or should know about the district’s continued failure to perform its levee duties, the grand jury report said. These parties include the district Board of Trustees, Napa County Local Agency Formation Commission officials and the County Counsel’s Office.
Possibly federal and state agencies would not pay flood damage costs if the levee broke, given local authorities have failed to make certain the NRRD is taking precautionary steps, the grand jury report said.
The Napa County Local Agency Formation Commission keeps an eye on special districts. Its 2005 report on the NRRD makes many of the same points as the new grand jury report and says there is a “strong need” for levee control.
Now the grand jury wants the Local Agency Formation Commission to take a more active role. It wants the commission and NRRD to take steps to resolve the levee situation.
Commission Executive Officer Brendon Freeman said the commission is likely to approve responses to the grand jury report at its Aug. 1 meeting.
Wagenknecht talked about working with Edgerly Island residents to find a levee solution that works for the community. What role the grand jury report might play in pushing the discussion forward remains to be seen.
Go to napacourt.com/grand-jury/reports-response%202015-2016 to view the grand jury report.
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