Without a doubt, water is the most coveted commodity in California. Farmers rely on it to grow their crops. Developers crave it. Gov. Jerry Brown wants to pipe more of it to that vast desert wasteland megalopolis known as Southern California.
Those who control it wield great economic and political power.
But about every decade or so here in the valley, water becomes an adversary, flooding everything from fields to front porches, from livestock yards to living rooms, and always leaving a muddy swath of devastation in its wake.
Indeed, rivers are natures great landscapers. They like to make the rules as they go and show no mercy for anyone or anything in their way.
Near the intersection of Crows Landing and South Carpenter roads southwest of Modesto, the San Joaquin River meanders through the valley on its way north toward the delta and eventually San Francisco Bay. More than 50 years ago, the state built a levee on the east side of the river. It is maintained by Reclamation District 2063, whose membership includes the farmers and others living within the district. The 11-mile-long section of levee, district president Joe Sallaberry said, protects about 20 square miles of prime farmland, not to mention the farms themselves and the roads that connect Modesto to Stanislaus Countys West Side.
In the spring of 2011, the river rose about 30 vertical feet, carving out a sizable lagoon from the east bank. Until then, the San Joaquin flowed roughly 230 feet from the base of the levee at that spot. Now, only about 30 feet of terra not-so- firma remains.
Sallaberry said he initially contacted the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, but it could provide no immediate help. So he began working the phones, calling contractor friends throughout the valley. He got them to haul old, broken-up concrete and dump it along the river. They donated the concrete and their services.
We got hundreds of loads, he said.
It worked, just as it does along the Sacramento River and in the San Joaquin Delta around Stockton. The concrete chunks deter erosion under normal river conditions, though my money wouldnt be on them during another flood. Why? As my college geology professor loved to say, the Earth will always reclaim.
Its just a reminder that we arent in total control, he said.
Still, it doesnt stop man from trying, and in this case, control is a two-front war for Sallaberry and the reclamation districts members: the ever- changing river on one side and the Department of Fish and Game on the other.
Because in trying to keep the river closer to its channel, Sallaberry bypassed the proper bureaucratic channels.
Its evolved into a typical dispute between old-school, common-sense farmers who see a problem and fix it as quickly and inexpensively as possible and the DFG, which has science and the law on its side.
In June, Sallaberry received a letter from a DFG environmental scientist ordering him to remove the concrete. The department told him he is in violation of Fish and Game Code Section 1602, which, in effect, says, Joe, you should have checked with us first.
The code mandates that the department must be notified before anything is done substantially diverting or obstructing the natural flow of a river, stream or lake. The department also demands a fee along with advance notification before altering a bed, channel or bank of a river, stream or lake. It restricts taking materials from said banks. It prohibits depositing or disposing of debris, waste, material containing crumbled, flaked or ground pavement where it may pass into a river, stream or lake.
Along with the concrete rubble, Sallaberry found some old tires buried on the property and used them as deterrents, too. He removed them after the water receded. He refuses to remove the concrete, though, unless the DFG accepts responsibility should the levee break, and does so in writing. That isnt going to happen.
So, he said, the concrete stays.
If the Department doesnt receive the notification and fee by July 3, 2012, the Department will pursue other enforcement options, the letter states. Those options could include referring the case to the Stanislaus County district attorney or the state attorney general for prosecution.
Sallaberry hasnt paid the fee, which is based upon the cost of his project. He said there was no cost, because the contractors donated the concrete and their services, and that he paid for the labor.
They can put me in jail, but Im not taking (the concrete) out, Sallaberry said.
A DFG official, though, said it wont come to that. The code allows for emergency actions, the official said. They simply want Sallaberrys finished work to comply with state law.
They dont want their relations with Sallaberry to erode like the banks of the San Joaquin River.
It doesnt need to be that kind of water war.
Jeff Jardines column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.