When it comes to flood fighting, the men and women who’ve worked for Levee District 1 have seen it all – from tragedy to triumph.
Those still around have plenty of stories to tell. The public will have an opportunity to hear some of those stories during the district’s 150th anniversary celebration on Oct. 26.
The district is responsible for operations and maintenance of 16.15 miles of levee spanning from Pease Road to Marcuse Road in Sutter County. It’s California’s first and oldest continually operated tax-supported agency.
“I think it’s a huge milestone for any organization to be around that long and still be in existence. It’s a testament to the public in general and the support they give to make sure we are still around after 150 years,” said Andrew Stresser, general manager of LD1. “Hopefully, with the same support from the public, we can be around another 150 years.”
Putting up a fight
Francis Silva, chairman and president of the LD1 Board of Directors, has been on the board since 1964, but his wealth of knowledge about flooding in the region dates back to at least 1937 when he helped fight his first flood while still in high school. He’s helped weather the storm in each high-water event since then – 1942, 1955, 1964, 1986, 1997 and 2017.
He knows the LD1 levee like few others, which is why safety officials tend to turn to him during emergencies. The 1955 flood is the one that sticks out the most to him because 37 people died.
“That flood reinforced why we do this every day. That’s why we protect the levees, because it saves lives,” Silva said.
Silva can tell stories about the nearly 200,000 sandbags that were thrown on the levee in 1997 to save the Laurel Avenue area in the southern part of the county from collapsing, or how in 1986 he and his team put stakes in 110 spots along the levee where they expected underseepage to occur – only missing two locations with their predictions.
He even lost his home in 1942 to flooding. He was displaced for weeks, at one point taking a boat to his neighborhood only to find about a foot of chimney visible, the rest submerged.
“The levees today – with their slurry walls – are completely different than what they used to be. Nowadays there is more protection underground than on top, so they are much safer,” Silva said. “The biggest threat to levees is underground. I’ve never seen a levee collapse from water going over top.”
Stresser has been with the district for three years, so the high-water events of early 2017 were the first time he got his feet wet when it comes to preventing a flood. He said there was a series of 18-hour days that he’ll never forget.
“There were some seepage issues that were occurring as a result of the dated slurry wall in the levee. When that wall was constructed in 1999, at the time, it was the best technology we had, but it didn’t really suffice in that scenario,” he said. “A lot has changed since then and technology has become far more advanced.”
Director Charlie Hoppin was also on the team that fought the most recent flood. He wanted to get involved with flood prevention after what he experienced in 1997.
“I was actively involved in fighting the 1997 flood in the Meridian basin. I realized after that how critical levee districts can be for the public,” Hoppin said.
He said when the water is high in the rivers, levee districts will conduct extra patrols to ensure something like a small boil doesn’t turn into a gaping hole. When a problem area is identified, the district will work to mitigate the damage, then coordinate a fix.
Hoppin said having a local maintaining agency reach 150 years shows what communities can do to protect themselves.
“I think it’s special because there is oversight from local people that have vested interest in keeping the community safe, instead of something where we have to rely strictly on a government agency outside the area to handle,” he said.
Silva said to have a public agency supported by taxpayers reach 150 years is phenomenal. The next 150 years will only see the district’s levees become stronger, he said, as the region inches closer and closer to a 200-year level of urban protection and 100-year level of rural protection, by FEMA’s standards.
“It will get done, it’s just something that takes time. I think we might be able to get there in the next 3-4 years,” Silva said.
The sesquicentennial celebration will be held at the LD1 office – 243 Second St., Yuba City – on Friday, Oct. 26 from 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m. The event will be open to the public.