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February, 2007


The Real Story: 07 Levee Breach
By Jeanette Pontacq

Assistant Editor
Two levees near Point Reyes Station, CA were breeched via 12 foot-wide swathes by a National Park Service caterpillar on the afternoon of Monday, January 8. And therein lies a story of West Marin in 2007. The two levees have existed for decades, built to protect the Tomales Bay Wetlands from getting wet. Why? Because the Richard Giacomini dairy was using the wetlands as its base ranch. The dairy cows could be, and were, moved to higher ground in winters that brought flooding from both high tides and heavy rains.
But the ranch didn't want the fields flooded. The idea all these decades was to push the flooding waters of Lagunitas Creek and Tomales Bay in the opposite direction from the wetlands, toward homes, the road between Point Reyes Station and Inverness, and local businesses. This intensified the floods and levee road residents have suffered serious losses to property and psyches six times over the last few decades.

In 2000, the National Park Service purchased the present Richard Giacomini ranch lands for $4.6 million in state and federal funds. The idea was and is to restore the wetlands, which had been degraded, diked and bermed, back to what it was originally: the wetlands at the head of Tomales Bay. Some restoration efforts were ongoing over the last 7 years, but the final/full turnover of the ranch to the ownership of the National Park Service takes place in March of 2007.

In anticipation of March 2007, the rancher had sold off his dairy herd to an outfit in Merced, CA in November of 06, prior to the winter months, keeping only a very few heifers, to be sold off later. The two levees in question had been seriously breeched and eroded by the horrific flooding and storms of winter 05/06. Mysteriously, after selling off his dairy cows, the rancher decided to rebuild both levees, even attempting to put riprap on top to strengthen them more.

The reaction by the town's residents was, at first, bewilderment. Since there was no possible reason for the levees to once more threaten the town this winter, locals were perplexed. Astonishment soon turned to anger when direct calls for the rancher to take down the levees prior to the winter rains were ignored and even ridiculed.

Residents along the levee road leading to Inverness formed a petition drive, led by Susan Smith and Kim Chernin; local papers wrote about the problem; pleas were made to our county supervisor, the local Fire Department and disaster personnel --- and much discussion was heard on the issue at the Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes Station most mornings. But the levees stayed up, even as the rains started. On the few times the rancher answered questions on the issue, he would state that "it is private property" and that he "was protecting his investment."

Residents were becoming more and more frustrated and disappointed in their elected and paid officials. The Fire Department, for example, regretfully told residents they could not step in until the flood actually happened, at which time they would surely try to rescue everyone!

In late November, responding to a newspaper article about the potential for flooding of homes due to the levees being rebuilt, Liza Crosse in Supervisor Steve Kinsey's office made a public comment that she was sure that the county would step in prior to flooding and breech the levees to protect the residents. Her kind and heart-felt words, unfortunately, did not reflect the reality already stated by the county agencies. Publicly reminded that residents expected "boots on the ground" to take care of this danger in advance of the storms, no more was heard from the office of our supervisor.

Soon, however, intense public relations/media pressure lead thoughtful Ken Massucco at Fire Department HQ into a telephone conversation with park Superintendent Don Neubacher and hydrologist Colin Smith, both of the Point Reyes National Seashore, about "triggers" that could be designated to initiate the breeching of the levees, in the public interest, on Mr. Giacomini's now-leased "ranch without cows." Such "triggers," were defined in various ways, from tide surges to weather reports.

After the conversation on December 20, Don Neubacher was given the task of taking a proposal to Rich Giacomini, to get an OK to breech the levees without the county having to step in and force the issue. It is unknown how many times Don Neubacher talked to Rich Giacomini about taking down the levees, but no agreements seemed to have been reached at that point.

End of December, the rains came, with very high winds. The high winds took down a tree that caused the destruction of Manka's restaurant by fire in Inverness. The Fire Department, in trying to save Manka's, depleted the big water tanks in the area, which opened the possibility of bacteria build-up in the backed up water pipes. Residents were warned by Ken Fox to boil their water or use bottled water.

Disaster agencies, water agencies and the media suddenly shined some serious attention on water issues around Tomales Bay. Water security was seen for what it was, rather than as an isolated issue, which added urgency to solving the possible flooding of Point Reyes Station due to Mr. Giacomini's rebuilding of the levees targeting levee road, cutting off Inverness.

Don Neubacher went back to the rancher, this time with added passion, and convinced Mr. Giacomini to allow a caterpillar from the National Park Service to take down the levee on January 8. There seems never to have been any thought that the Giacomini Ranch should use its own yellow caterpillar, the one that had built the levees in the first place, to make the needed breeches. Only the taxpayer-funded caterpillar of the National Park Service was now available to the community, ferried by truck to the levees.

On January 8, the NPS duly brought over their own orange-yellow caterpillar, drivers and crew dressed in day-glow green safety vests, to take down a levee... across from White House Pool, not the main one nearest Point Reyes Station! Jack Long, resident on levee road, immediately went over to the crew and asked if they were also going to take down the main levee next. "No," said the driver, "just this levee." Local residents went into action and called Don Neubacher at the Park, who had promised that the main levee would come down. In the end, after lunch, the main levee was breeched by the National Park Service caterpillar and good-natured crew.

At 7:20am the next morning, January 9, two amiable employees from the Park came over and sprinkled hay from a number of bales on the open sores of the breeches, in order to "stop erosion." As one local resident quipped at the time, "this is gilding the lily, but it's a welcome change from being ignored by the Park so often. Hooray for the change and hooray for the Park!"

As residents celebrated over the next few days, residents and tourists alike started offering questions that ranged from 1) "why the levees had been up in the first place all these years when they obviously intensified flooding of the town;" 2) "why the levees had been put up this particular winter, without even the false promise of protecting Mr. Giacomini's cows;" 3) "why the taxpayers had to breech the levees, when Mr. Giacomini had put them up in the first place;" and 4)" why all the county officials have so long refused to help residents from flooding until a larger media light was shined on the issue." All good questions. Activists around Tomales Bay, however, simply celebrated at being able to breech the dangerous levees, and also celebrated the fact that this was the last year of such danger to the residents. Once the NPS is in full control of the Tomales Bay Wetlands, the plan is to take all levees down and let the wetlands be wetlands again.

Activists also admitted that the levees came down, not because of the officials on their own, and most certainly not because of any change of heart of Rich Giacomini, but because residents stood up, acted up and never stopped holding the official's feet to the fire of public opinion. Therein lies the story and the lesson for West Marin 2007.

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