Rising tide

A growing number of north Chico residents are aligning against the Rock Creek Flood Control Project

ROCK AND A HARD PLACE Larry and Pat Stephenson say that if the Rock Creek Flood Control project is allowed to go through, it will destroy their back yard in the Quail Run subdivision.

ROCK AND A HARD PLACE Larry and Pat Stephenson say that if the Rock Creek Flood Control project is allowed to go through, it will destroy their back yard in the Quail Run subdivision.

photo by Tom Angel

Touchy timeline: Supervisor Mary Anne Houx, countering accusations that she is rushing the Rock Creek Flood Control Project, stated that a two-year design process must follow the upcoming feasibility study and environmental review, with construction starting around summer 2004 and taking two years to complete.

Marilyn Bolen has never been involved in politics before, but she’s getting a crash course on the subject these days.

She’s hosted neighborhood meetings, met with county supervisors, persuaded 70 people to sign a letter to the Grand Jury and researched things she never thought she would—things like water flow rates and flood prevention. It’s all in an effort to oppose the Rock Creek Flood Control Project, which would erect a 10-foot levee along Rock Creek, right behind Bolen’s house.

She and her neighbors are relatively new to the opposition effort, which has been led for months mainly by a small group of farmers who live across the road. The physical distance between the two contingents—the farmers and those in Bolen’s swanky Quail Run subdivision—is negligible, but the distance between the lifestyles is striking.

The homes in Quail Run subdivision (located off Keefer Road just east of Highway 99 in north Chico) are more estates than houses, with lush landscaping, long driveways and swimming pools. The homes on the west side of Highway 99 are mainly humble ranchettes surrounded by smallish orchards.

Farmers or Quail Run residents, though, they have one common interest: to see the current plans for the Rock Creek Flood Control Project thrown out the window.

The project would erect a 10-foot dirt levee along 13 miles of Rock Creek, which runs behind many of the homes in the subdivision and through several orchards. The behemoth of a project—it will cost upward of $34 million—will force dozens of landowners to sell off parcels of their properties to the county (which could declare eminent domain and take it anyway) for the construction as well as maintenance and access roads.

No one, said Bolen, doubts that there is a problem with high water in the area. She admits that the county should do something to fix it. But she and a growing number of people in her neighborhood doubt that the county’s seemingly set-in-stone plans will solve the problem.

“We can think of better ways to fix it,” she said. “Cheaper ways, ways that won’t damage people’s property.”

One of Bolen and her neighbors’ chief complaints is that 3rd District Supervisor Mary Anne Houx has ramrodded the project through the planning process and casually dismissed homeowners’ concerns about it. The letter to the Grand Jury asks that the government-appointed body investigate charges of impropriety on Houx’s part.

“She’s gone out and told [the farmers] that we’re for it, and then told us that they’re for it,” Bolen said. “Now we’re getting together and figuring out that none of us want it. … She just won’t answer our questions.”

Houx, who has made completion of the project a centerpiece of her supervisorial term, seems just as determined see the project completed as Bolen and her neighbors are to defeat it. Her office is filled with maps of the area showing where water pools and spills over Keefer Slough in the winter months, charts of flood years and project plans. She took on the project, she said in an interview this summer, when U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein “demanded” that she spearhead an effort to avoid massive flooding in the area.

Houx hopes to start construction on the project as early as 2004.

Bolen’s neighbor, Pat Stephenson, would lose almost 15 feet of her back yard to the levee, which would come within another 15 feet of her swimming pool. Right now, she said, her yard is landscaped with two brick walls that help hide the berm she and her husband built to help contain Rock Creek. She admits that something needs to be done to control the winter and spring high water in the area, but said that the project, as it’s now proposed, would cause more problems than it would solve.

If the levee is built, she said, it would almost completely take over her yard. The windows in her house look out over the yard—a view that would be completely changed by the levee. At least one of her decorative brick walls would have to be removed.

“I’ve had nightmares about what this is going to do to my home,” Stephenson said. “This would be like being in a prison surrounded by a big dirt wall.”

Stephenson, like Bolen, said she has never seen flooding in the area, although she’s seen “high water.”

“I consider flooding to be when the water is up to the door,” Bolen said. “There’s never even been anything close to that here … the most we’ve seen is the water coming up high in the creek. It’s never come over.”

Underlying both women’s concerns about the project are complaints that Houx has refused to take them seriously. Stephenson worries that speaking out against the supervisor will backfire in some sort of “political retribution,” but she complains that in meetings with her Houx has been evasive and even combative with her.

“It’s a scary thing to stand there and say all these things about her,” Stephenson said. “A lot of people out here are concerned about that.”

Houx, though, denied in an interview this summer that she’s tried to ramrod anything through. She pointed out in a fact sheet about the project, sent out just last month, that there have been many public meetings about the project above and beyond what’s required by state and federal requirements.

“Public input is greatly appreciated,” she said in the fact sheet.

However, Rich Wallace, who farms 75 acres of almonds along Rock Creek, said he doubts if that’s true. Wallace was one of the first vocal opponents of the plan, as it would take almost a quarter of his orchard out of production and permanently reshape the creek that winds through his land. His wife’s family, the Hennigans, have lived and farmed on the Anita Road property since 1919, and he said there has never been a flood there in all those years.

"[The planners] keep saying that they’re still planning the project, and that it’s not a set in stone yet, that we still have a chance to have our input considered," Wallace said. "But listen to the tone of the comments. This is a done deal, and it was done long ago, and that’s my gripe."