A group of about eight recreational vehicles – nine if you count the one that is in a pile of ashes after burning at some point – are situated on the inside of the levee in a public park along the Sacramento River just north of Knights Landing. Similar pockets can be seen along the river to the north and south, all it takes is a quick drive on Cranmore Road.
These aren’t over-nighters.
Some of the residents of the encampments have solar panels set up, others have built makeshift sheds and structures out of a variety of materials, all of which have a beautiful view of the river and surrounding agricultural fields that sprawl for miles; none of which have been inspected or approved by local or state safety officials.
When the waters rise as they so often do along the north state’s waterways during the winter, much of those encampments will be lost to the Sacramento River. What is taken out before then by vehicles will likely cut ruts into the levee embankment, causing problems for Reclamation District 1500, which is tasked by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the levee from Knights Landing to the Tisdale Weir.
Their job has become increasingly harder over the last several years, said General Manager Brad Mattson.
“All these campers have made a mess out of the levees and environment. There’s trash, we’ve had thefts around the area, we’ve seen cars, RVs and fiberglass boats burned,” Mattson said. “Certain areas are worse than others, but these levees protect this area, so any degradation, one small hole, could turn bad fast.”
He estimated the levees protect approximately $300 million in assets, not to mention lives.
During high water events, Mattson’s team drives up and down the levee around the clock to monitor for issues. They’ve seen entire encampments washed down river. In some instances, the individuals have reportedly cut into the toe of the levee to back their RV in so that it’s not as easily detectable from the road, he said.
“The biggest thing we’ve noticed is the increase in the number of vehicles down there,” Mattson said. “We’ve talked to the sheriff, the county, but every time we do, we’re told that their hands are tied. It’s unfortunate, but it’s become so rampant.”
Other area waterways
What Mattson and RD 1500 is experiencing is not unique in California. Similar encampments have popped up along the Feather River and Yuba River over the past decade or so as well, said James Stone, president of Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen’s Association.
“It’s a very big problem. Our leadership should stop turning a blind eye and start doing something about it,” Stone said, who leads fishing trips on both the Feather and Yuba rivers. “We have massive destruction of our banks, some levees and our environment. There are thousands of pounds of trash, debris, tents, refrigerators, tables, chairs, bicycles, you name it, all over the bottom of the Yuba and Feather rivers.”
Some of the most outrageous things Stone has seen at the encampments include homemade slip-n-slides into the river, piles of what appeared to be stolen bicycles and portable toilets that allow the user to defecate directly into the river. He said the issue has gotten considerably worse over the last five years.
“It’s had a huge economical impact on our fishing guides as well as members of the association. The amount of tourism dollars we are losing during striper season is in the millions of dollars,” Stone said. “Just our fishing guides alone have noticed at least a $1.5 million impact on our combined wages due to the fact that clients, when we take them out to fish, they have told us they will never come back. Our community once used to be beautiful and not an eyesore.”
He estimates it will take millions of dollars to clean up the damage that has been done along local rivers.
Stone has taken out local politicians, including Assemblyman James Gallagher and state Sen. Jim Nielsen, on multiple occasions to see the extent of encampments.
“They’ve all seen it and are aware of it. They want to see a resolution, too,” he said. “I believe they are now reaching toward outside sources for assistance, such as the federal government because the state government doesn’t seem to want to do anything about it.”
What Mattson, Stone and others are being told when raising concerns about the encampments is that officials’ hands are tied due to a September 2018 ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that stated homeless people cannot be punished for sleeping on public property if there are not adequate alternatives or beds to house them. The decision has caused jurisdictions up and down the West Coast to stop enforcing no camping ordinances due to it being considered unconstitutional.
“We just hope to find a way to clean up this mess. We’d like to see Code Enforcement and the counties holding everyone to the same standards,” Mattson said. “I can see where their hands are tied on this, but when it comes down to it, if something was to happen to these levees, it’s on me because I’m the one in charge of them.”
The Yuba-Sutter area has made strides in the recent past increasing its resources and available bed space for individuals experiencing homelessness, such as 14Forward and the Life Building Center in Marysville. Sutter County recently opened its own emergency shelter facility on Live Oak Boulevard meant to be a temporary stay for those seeking out transitional or permanent housing.
Still, there aren’t enough beds or adequate alternatives for law enforcement to enforce a no camping ordinance. Sutter County and Yuba City recently formed a homeless ad hoc committee to research shelter alternatives that will give officials enforcement options.
Sutter County Supervisor Mike Ziegenmeyer is one of the four officials on the ad hoc committee. Addressing the area’s homeless situation is one of the main reasons he ran for office.
“I’d like to see a tent city. Somewhere where we could actually have teeth in our ordinances, such as no camping, no parking, no loitering, etc.,” he said, citing Modesto as a jurisdiction that has successfully incorporated a tent city. “We know there is a problem with homeless encampments inside the levees, people are burrowing into the levees, there’s debris in the water, there’s needles and hazards everywhere. Working together with the city, we need to find a place that can house a facility like that so that law enforcement will be able to enforce the policies we have in place.”
Finding a location that is suitable for everyone is the challenging part, he said. It will take a joint effort by all, including the community, to come up with something that works. He said there are already a number of great churches, organizations and community members working toward addressing the area’s homeless situation. He hopes state leaders get on board too to provide some support.
“We need to take back our levees and our river bottoms. It’s not right or fair,” Ziegenmeyer said. “We are working on this thing. I want to see us come up with something in the near future.”