Enforcing an obscure law locally for the first time, a state wildlife agency has prohibited county maintenance workers from removing trash and weeds from hundreds of county flood control channels since June, increasing the danger of fires and floods, county officials said Friday.
"It's serious business. Our maintenance people can't do their work because they're afraid they're going to be arrested," county Public Works Director Arthur E. Goulet said. "This is bureaucracy run amok."
In blocking the maintenance work, the state Department of Fish and Game has said that even routine county trash and weed removal from the channels, which are considered state waterways, is illegal without a special agreement with the wildlife agency.
"If flood control would abide by the law and abide by it in a timely fashion, there would be no problem," said Lt. Chris Long, chief Fish and Game warden in Ventura County. "If they had been following the law, they wouldn't be in the situation they're in now."
Goulet said the county has tried to reach an agreement that would allow workers to clean channels without seeking state permission first, which is the way the flood control district has operated for decades.
But after months of wrangling, including a confrontation in which a state game warden threatened four county workers with arrest, flood control channels are fouled with litter, underbrush and stagnant water, Goulet said. And the county Fire Department notified the state last week that the clutter is a fire hazard as well.
Goulet said months of state foot-dragging has blocked an agreement that would allow the county to clean the channels well before this winter's rains.
Goulet said he was told recently by a state official that the wildlife agency did not have time to retype the latest version of its proposed agreement to include changes favored by the county.
"We sent out a letter today telling them that if they don't want to type it, we will," Goulet said. "It's on a word processor, for crying out loud."
If not resolved soon, the issue will be placed before an arbitrator for a decision on what conditions are reasonable in the agreement, Goulet said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Linda Groberg, who is familiar with the case, said state law is on the side of Fish and Game. An agreement between the state and the county is required to prescribe how routine maintenance is carried out, she said.
Long said the issue came to a head June 27 when a game warden saw county workers dumping trash on an access road next to a flood control channel.
"A warden observed a flood control vehicle hauling a bunch of trash--cans and bottles, containers, shopping carts . . . and illegally dumping them," Long said.
State law prohibits the dumping of debris within 150 feet of a state waterway, a concrete-lined channel in this case.
County officials said the workers had pulled the trash and weeds from the channel and--as is their usual practice--spread the debris across a county access road to dry. Landfills won't accept wet trash, Goulet said.
The warden told the workers that they would be arrested if they spread debris on roads again, and the incident prompted the state to press the county for an agreement on how it would conduct channel maintenance.
"We had been discussing some issues with flood control prior to that," said Long, who took charge of the Ventura warden unit last December. "Like, 'Why won't you folks follow the law?' It's not just maintenance."
The lack of progress toward an agreement endangers the public, said Mike Taylor, engineer in charge of maintenance at the flood control district.
Usually, all 150 to 200 channels under county control are cleared of weeds and debris by now, so runoff from winter rains will flow smoothly to the ocean, he said.
"But this year we've done nothing since June 27," Taylor said. "In several areas it is dangerous. We have debris and vegetation and other stuff where it could cause local flooding if we had a big rain."
The danger of fire is also higher because of the stalemate, county Deputy Fire Chief Robert F. Holaway warned the state wildlife agency last week.
"Sections of flood-control channels . . . pose a fire hazard due to the existence of combustible growth within the channel," Holaway said in a letter to Fish and Game Regional Director Fred Worthley.
In the letter, he asked that the flood control district be allowed to clear the channels immediately.
Long said that if the county considers the situations hazardous, state law allows it to declare an emergency and to remove the hazards. But the county would be subject to penalties if the state disagreed that an emergency existed, he said.