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April 2005


River Meander Threatens Vital Infrastructure

The Sacramento River serves many purposes for many different interests: It is a water delivery system for farms and cities; a conduit for flood waters; a place to recreate for boaters, fishermen, floaters, hikers, and sightseers; and serves as habitat to a variety of species.

Recently, many environmental interests have promoted the concept of river meander for the stated purpose of improving riparian and fish habitat. However, oftentimes important human needs are not taken into consideration when these decisions are made. While the improvement of habitat is a laudable goal, it should not be permitted to trump the other interests that depend on this waterway as well. While a meandering river is appropriate in some places, it is often not compatible with the interests of the people who work, live, and recreate along its banks.

Below are just a few examples of the negative impacts associated with an unchecked meandering Sacramento River.

Flood Control

The promotion of river meander is a great threat to the Sacramento River flood control system, upon which we depend for protection of our lives, homes, and billions of dollars worth of investments. It cuts into the levees causing erosion problems, thereby undermining the stability of these protective barriers. It results in the deposition of silt and gravel that fills in the river channel, weirs and bypasses, thus reducing the effectiveness of the designed flood control system. It recruits large woody debris that impairs navigatablility, damages infrastructure, causes damning effects within the river channel, creates sand bars, and reduces the conveyance capacity of the river channel, thereby placing further pressure on the levees.

Over the last thirty plus years, the costs associated with maintaining and operating this system has spun out of control. Historically, routine dredging, removal of large woody debris, cleaning out of weirs and bypasses, and the placement of rock on eroding portions of the levees was conducted annually to offset the degradation of the system caused by the river meander.

However, due to environmental regulation, the costs of mitigation, and a lack of funding from Sacramento, the flood control system has drastically deteriorated, and shows no signs for immediate improvement without a significant change in policy. The cost of repairing one linear foot of levee has reportedly increased from approximately $300 per linear foot, to the astronomical figure of $5,000-$12,000 per linear foot (depending on the mitigation required). This outrageous increase in cost is primarily due to the environmental review and mitigation now required.

A recent report by the United States Army Corps of Engineers has identified 186 erosion points, 25 deemed potentially critical or critical. It is estimated that this deferred maintenance will cost upwards of $600 million to correct.

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) recently released a report entitled "Flood Warnings: Responding to California’s Flood Crisis" which details the dire state of flood control. This report calls for the establishment of an assessment district [ MORE FEES ] to pay for the much needed maintenance that the state has ignored and neglected to fund.

It is clear that the promotion of an unchecked river meander negatively impacts everyone in the state, from both a safety and an economic perspective. Yet, reasonable solutions that address the needs of people are oftentimes resisted.

Princeton, Codora, Glenn and Provident Irrigation Districts

Approximately five years ago, the Princeton, Codora, Glenn and Provident Irrigation Districts (PCGID-PID) consolidated their pumping plant facilities and built a state of the art of fish screen, at a cost of $11 million. This consolidation and screening project resulted in protection for the fishery population, compliance with the ESA, and assured a dependable supply of water for 30,000 acres of farmland. However, the river is meandering away from the pumping plant and fish screen, threatening the continued viability of this substantial investment.

Historically, protecting the plant would have merely consisted of placing rock on the eroding bank. But, it is not so easy in today’s world. Across the river is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 500 acre Llano Seco Wildlife Refuge. The Sacramento River Partners, a restoration group, has been contracted to do the restoration work on the 500 acre piece of property. Rock on the bank was not in the intial plan, as the proponents of the restoration project promote a meandering river and expansion of the riparian habitat along the river. Thus, the restoration plans and the protection of the pumping plant are not wholly compatible.

After a frustrating dialogue between the stakeholders initially led to a stalemate, the parties have since agreed to proceed with a study funded by CALFED, at a cost of almost $290,000, to analyze a solution that will address the needs of both.

However, it remains to be seen if a mutually acceptable plan will prevail. The currently favored alternative now being studied consists of breaching a bend in the river, removing rock in one place, and building dikes at another spot across from the pumping plant. This alternative would come at cost of approximately $3 million dollars.

In the meantime, one large flood event could potentially migrate the river far enough away from the pumping plant to render it inoperable, thereby leaving thousands of acres of productive farmland without water, and causing disastrous economic impacts for individuals and neighboring communities.

M & T Chico Ranch/Llano Seco Ranch and Refuge Pumps, City of Chico Wastewater Treatment Outfall

In 1996, the M & T Chico Ranch, and the Llano Seco Ranch and Refuge moved their pumping facility from Big Chico Creek to the east bank of the Sacramento River as part of a cooperative effort to improve the fishery resources on Big Chico Creek, Butte Creek, and the Sacramento River. The City of Chico’s wastewater treatment outfall is located on the same bank approximately 300 feet downstream. Operation of the pumping facility and the Chico outfall is currently threatened by deposition of sediment at the pump intake and the City outfall, this is attributed to the river meandering.

In 2001, as a short term fix, a large gravel bar was removed, but is now coming back. In 2003, a study was undertaken to assess the potential for long term alternatives to protect this vital infrastructure. According to the study group, the two most viable solutions, as of the February 2005 meeting, included: (1) the erection of dikes to shore up the opposite bank, thus preventing the further migration of the river to the west and minimizing the deposit of sediment in front of the pumps and outfall; or (2) abandonment of the existing pumping plant, and the installation of Ranney Collectors, an apparatus that works like a groundwater pump, but instead of pulling water from an aquifer, it pulls water from the gravel under the river.

According to Les Heringer, the General Manager of M & T Chico Ranch, the Ranney Collectors would cost approximately $12-15 million, would leave the investment for the current pumping plant useless, would increase the cost of pumping about 400%, and may not guarantee the necessary water to irrigate the ranches or the refuge in the long term.

At a recent SRCAF Board Meeting, Mr. Heringer provided an update on the studies, and expressed his uneasiness with the results to date. His uneasiness is based on concerns from the engineers that if the river migrates too far west, the erection of dikes will cease to be a solution. This reality could be one big flood event away, jeopardizing the one practical solution available.

Heringer also explained that the two Ranches gave up valuable water rights on Butte Creek as a part of the deal to relocate the pumping plant to assist with the efforts to rehabilitate the salmon populations. He pointed out that the only economically viable alternative for both the ranch and the refuge is to protect the opposite bank and maintain the current pumping plant.

Heringer expressed his frustration that farmers had hung their hats with the SRCAF on the idea that if they went along with this program, that promotes a limited river meander, "where appropriate", that they would have the ability to protect vital hardpoints on a timely basis.

To date, they continue to work on a long term solution while two private ranches, a wildlife refuge, and a public work all are in jeopardy.

Colusa Boat Ramp/Roberts Irrigation Ditch

The Colusa Boat Ramp, located at the California State Park in the City of Colusa, has also suffered greatly due to the river meander.

Years ago, the Boat Ramp provided access directly to the river. Since that time, the river has migrated a considerable distance from the launch site, and the mouth of the channel is regularly silted in. Annual dredging (approximately 1000 feet) is now required in order to keep the ramp operable. Also, this location serves as an agricultural diversion for the Robert’s Ditch Irrigation Company, who has a riparian diversion at the same point, and which is equally compromised by the river meander and siltation problem. When the channel silts in, it renders both the pump/fish screen and the boat ramp useless, thus denying public and emergency service access to the river, as well as depriving farmers water to irrigate.

The short term solution, dredging, is costly, time consuming, and requires permits from the state and federal resource agencies. Presently, after much effort, a five year permit has been awarded to conduct dredging activities. The State Park and Robert’s Ditch have provided funding in the past for the dredging, however, the annual costs have recently proven prohibitive.

The long term solution is the relocation of the boat ramp. The Colusa Boat Ramp Committee, a consortium of concerned individuals and organizations concerned about this issue, held a raffle last year to raise funds to help pay for the preliminary work for the relocation project, as well as to keep the existing boat ramp open. Grant funding is being pursued to pay for a new ramp at a permanently protected location, at a cost likely to be well over one million dollars.

The inability to protect this hardpoint has many ramifications. The ability to irrigate land has been compromised. The loss of use of the boat ramp has recreational, economic and safety impacts. When boats are unable to launch, fewer people spend dollars related to fishing and boating activities in the community. Even more critical is the concern that search and rescue and emergency services are unable to access the river in the case of an emergency.

In fact, recently a medical emergency on a boat occurred, requiring a quick evacuation at the boat ramp. Just five days later, the channel to the boat ramp was completely dry. Had the emergency occurred then, it would have cost a significant amount of precious time, possibly resulting in the loss of life.


While nobody wants to see the entire river channel rocked, the needs of the people should carry some weight. However, in today’s world of environmental zeal, it often feels like the needs of the fish trump those of the citizens. Balanced solutions that account for the needs of the environment, farmers, fishermen, boaters, and communities are available, and are the options that should be pursued.


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