State allegedly ghosted Merced’s attempts to get permission to clear creeks for months before the floods

June 11, 2024
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Water surrounds a neighborhood in western Merced after Bear Creek overflowed its banks in January 2023 storm. CITY OF MERCED
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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Evidence is stacking up against the state in one of multiple lawsuits over last year’s devastating floods in Merced County. One of the most stunning new pieces of evidence is a string of 12 emails from Merced County staff that went ignored by the state for more than four months before last year’s floods.

The lawsuit was filed against the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) on behalf of the City of Merced, a local elementary school and 12 agricultural groups. All the plaintiffs took significant damage from flooding after water backed up in clogged waterways and broke through, or overtopped creek banks and levees. 

The flooding came primarily from Bear Creek and Black Rascal Creek, both of which have flooded before. Flooding from Miles Creek also damaged nearly every home in the small, rural town of Planada. 

The lawsuit alleges the CDFW delayed permitting for maintenance on the waterways for more than five years, blocking the county’s ability to clear out the creeks. As SJV Water reported last year, the lawsuit reveals damning emails that show a bureaucratic process that dragged out for years. The CDFW oversees all natural waterways in the state and determines what maintenance can be done. It requires permit agreements to work in those waterways. 

“Based on the evidence that I’ve seen, there was complete disregard for the safety of the public by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife,” said Mick Marderosian, lead counsel for the plaintiffs suing CDFW. “Whatever happened here was wrong and needs to be corrected.”

CDFW staff did not respond to requests for comment. 

New emails obtained by Marderosian through the discovery process show a consultant who worked on behalf of Merced County, attempted 12 times to get updates from CDFW about the permitting process so the county could begin clearing out waterways. 

The consultant began sending emails to CDFW asking for updates in August 2022. She received no responses. 

“Does CDFW Management have any remaining concerns that we can help address?” wrote the consultant in September 2022. 

A week later, she tried again, urging CDFW for updates as the county’s window for maintenance would be closing quickly with the approaching winter. CDFW staff did not respond.  

The consultant kept trying. In October, she emphasized the necessity of the projects before winter. 

“Today marks the last day of October, so the County is already behind on this year’s schedule to complete the urgent maintenance projects,” she wrote. Still, nothing came from CDFW. 

In mid-November, the consultant expressed serious concern. 

“We haven’t heard back from CDFW for a couple of months and are growing concerned that the county’s agreement may have stalled,” she wrote. 

In mid-December, the consultant tried contacting Julie Vance, regional manager for CDFW. 

The consultant specified that the county had identified vegetation management needs and seven critical erosion areas in need of work. She pointed out that prior communication with CDFW indicated an agreement was almost complete. 

“The county is extremely concerned at the delay in receipt of the revised agreement and that progress may have been stalled,” wrote the consultant. 

She received no response. 

Finally, on December 29, 2022 the consultant received an automated email response from Julie Vance stating she would be out of office on vacation until January 3.  

On Jan. 9, 2023 heavy rains deluged the region and water overtopped debris-laden creek and broke through weakened banks flooding hundreds of homes and businesses.

According to Marderosian, CDFW staff have said the amount of water was so great that flooding would have occurred regardless of whether the maintenance work had been done. 

But Marderosian hired hydrologists to conduct a survey after the floods on the creeks that flooded. They concluded that if the work had been completed, flooding would have been significantly reduced and possibly may not have happened at all, he said. 

In July 2022, the Department of Water Resources conducted a levee inspection on Bear Creek and found that vegetation had decreased channel capacity by 50% and needed clearing. 

“It’s just appalling to me that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has this much power to stall and avoid issuance of an agreement to clean these channels in an area where there has been a history of flooding,” said Marderosian. 

The lawsuit will not be resolved for quite a while though as a trial date has been set for January 27, 2026 in the Merced County Superior Court. 

Jesse Vad, SJV Water

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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