County officials, code officers and law enforcement need to find a way to protect our levee system from degradation due to over-camping and sheltering.

That’s easier said than done, we realize. 

Officials feel their hands are tied due to a 2018 ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that homeless people cannot be punished for sleeping on public property if there are not adequate alternatives. Communities all up and down the state have stopped enforcing no camping ordinances since.

Still, it seems there ought to be an exception for sensitive public areas ... such as the sides of the levees that keep us out from under water.

And are they homeless folk? Or campers? Or squatters? Or displaced persons? Depending on your perspective, the label is more or less flattering for people who are digging into area levees, parking RVs long-term, building makeshift shelters – some quite intricate.

An Appeal-Democrat writer reported Sunday about small gatherings of shelters and RVs on the water-side of levees in a public park area along the Sacramento River just north of Knights Landing. There are similar settlements all up and down that stretch. There are and have been similar campsites set up in the river bottoms around Yuba City and Marysville, though most are not posing the problems those on that levee pose: “Some of the encampments have solar panels set up, others have built makeshift sheds and structures out of a variety of materials ... none of which have been inspected or approved by local or state safety officials,” it was reported. Some of those campers, from time to time, dig into the toe of the levee to back RVs in so they’re not as easily detectable from the surveillance road.

Large parts of those encampments will be lost to the river when it rises during the winter months. 

“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.”

District 1500 General Manager Brad Mattson complains that the campers have made a mess of the levees and local environment – trash, thefts, cars, RVS and boats burned. The worry is that even slight degradations to levees can lead to severe problems, and Mattson estimates the levees protect some $300 million in assets, as well as lives.

Others who use the rivers, including those making a living guiding fishing trips say there is massive damage to banks, levees and wild areas.

“... 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,” said James Stone, president of Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen’s Association.

Advocates for the homeless say there’s a problem with a lack of affordable housing; and people without permanent homes gather along waterways, as people always have.

But are they homeless or campers? Or both? And can they be moved to other less sensitive public lands?

“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.”

Our counties are working to address homelessness. There are alternatives being provided for homeless to stay.  More alternatives are needed; and an assortment of alternatives is needed.

Sutter County Supervisor Mike Ziegenmeyer said he’d like to see a tent city approach. Better upgrade it to a tent city/mobile home park. 

We don’t think they’re ever going far away ... just shifting locations as need be. Better to have them in a controlled environment, than camping willy-nilly along the levee system that protects us all.

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