Family farmers say they will drown in county’s misguided flood control project
Taking off his dusty, sweat-stained ball cap and scratching his shiny forehead, Rich Wallace sighs as he gazes at the seemingly endless rows of blooming almond trees all around him.
It’s almost dusk and so quiet I can hear the buzz of the bees busily pollinating the orchard and the hooves of the two horses grazing on the front of the property beating the ground.
This land is full of memories, Wallace says, watching a bird land on a tree above him. He and his wife, Barbara, point out the creek running behind the orchard where they swam on hot summer days early in their marriage, the fallen trees they’ve replaced after storms, the hollow tree that the raccoons and quail live in, the shady spot where they built their home—by themselves—when they could finally afford it.
For almost a hundred years, Wallace’s wife’s family has lived and farmed on the several hundred acres they own on Anita Road in north Chico, where Highway 99 morphs from a multi-lane highway to more of a country road and divides ag land from developable land. Five offshoots of the family—including Wallace’s father and both of his wife’s parents—still live in homes scattered across the land.
It’s a peaceful place and a restful life, but lately life has been far from restful for the Wallaces.
That’s because they’ve been fighting tooth-and-nail against a flood control plan being promoted by Butte County. The plan sounds, they admit, like a good deal on its face. Who wouldn’t want to save the fancy new homes and farms out near Keefer Slough and Wilson Landing?
And at first glance the county’s flood control plan—a behemoth of a project that Supervisor Mary Anne Houx is spearheading—really is a good idea. No one argues the fact that someone needs to do something to prevent the area’s homeowners, who live on what used to be empty grasslands that were allowed to pool with floodwaters until they were developed, from disastrous flooding. Even U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein was so concerned about the flooding potential there that she “demanded” the county come up with a plan to stave it off, Houx said.
The problem, as the Wallaces see is, is this:
“It would ruin my land and put me right out of business,” Wallace says, grimacing. “And there’s no doubt about that. … Everything we’ve worked for, for all these years, you can just flush it.”
The county has plans to build a levee on Rock Creek, which runs through Wallace’s property, to divert floodwaters from Keefer Slough, which can’t hold it all. It’s that levee that has Wallace up in arms, since it would take more than 20 acres of his 75-acre almond orchard out of production, he says. The construction of the levee would tear up the pristine stretch of Rock Creek on his property, force the closure of a hunting club he operates and, in the end, force him to close up shop.
The land Wallace would be left with after the levee construction, he said, simply wouldn’t make enough money to support the farm’s total operating cost. The proposal seems even more unfair, he says, since those who would most benefit from the project are the fairly new homeowners, who bought their land cheap knowing they were buying on a flood plain.
“Our land has never, ever flooded before, and we’ve been here since 1919,” Wallace said. “What it comes down to is, the county is going to save the nice, new homes at the expense of a farm that’s been here since 1919.”
Wallace said he’s been asking a lot of questions of Houx and the Army Corps of Engineers, which is surveying the project, but has gotten few answers.
Houx said she’s working extra hard on the project-which will cost $34 million-since she plans to use federal funds to pay for 70 percent of the project. However, in order for the federal government to hand over the money, the project has to have started by the end of the year. While homeowners benefiting from the flood control plan won’t have to pay anything to build the levee and flood wall, Houx said homeowners who benefit from the project will share the estimated $70,000 in annual maintenance fees.
“I’ve tried to tell Mr. Wallace that we will treat him fairly,” Houx said. “He will be compensated for any land we take. … There are just some people who don’t like things.”
But Wallace said even if the county pays him for the land it will take to construct the levee, the project would still put him out of business. That’s because, Wallace says, it’s harder to make a profit in the already-tight almond market on a shrinking piece of land. He also claims it will make his land more prone to flooding.
“The way I see it, they’re not fixing the problem, they’re just moving it,” he said. “And I don’t want them to pay me for the land. I just want the land.” It’s especially upsetting, Wallace said, because the new houses that will most benefit from the water diversion shouldn’t even have been built in the first place. The swanky subdivision, called Carriage Estates, was approved by the county using faulty maps that failed to identify the land as a flood plain. If the supervisors knew that it was a flood plain, they never would have allowed the houses to be built, Houx said. However, now that they’re there, “we have to do something,” she said.
“The people who have suffered in this have suffered because of a mistake in the federal mapping,” Houx said. “We’re just trying to resolve everyone’s problem now.”
Houx said she’s working extra hard on the project—which will cost $34 million—since she plans to use federal funds to pay for 70 percent of the project. However, in order for the federal government to hand over the money, the project has to have started by the end of the year. While homeowners benefiting from the flood control plan won’t have to pay anything to build the levee and flood wall, they will be assessed about $7,000 a year to maintain them, Houx said.
But for Wallace, even the suggestion that he will benefit from the program is like a slap in the face. And the fact that he’ll have to pay to maintain it is like pouring salt in an open wound.
“This is the hill we’re going to die on," Wallace says, steering a dusty Ford Bronco through his flowering orchard. "This just can’t happen."