THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE June 17, 2006 Superlevee permit rescinded BY GREG LUCAS, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau A state flood control board accused of violating open-meeting laws earlier this year when it granted a permit for a "superlevee" needed for an 11,000-home development in a flood-prone area of the delta rescinded its decision Friday. After the reversal, the five-member state Reclamation Board voted to allow the River Islands development planned for Lathrop (San Joaquin County) to create the superlevee but postponed a decision on a permit to build houses on top of it. "This proposal in front of you today ... offers an exemplary solution for flood," Susan Dell'Osso, project director for River Islands, told the board. "The flood protection exceeds that for probably any other area in California." Under the permit the board originally approved, homes could be built on the new levee at the water's edge. The board will decide June 26 on another permit that could allow homes to be built on the levee if they are set back 75 feet from the water. The area between the homes and the water's edge would be parkland. The spotlight on the River Islands project came after environmental groups complained that the board violated open-meeting laws in April when it approved both construction of a 300-foot-wide superlevee along the San Joaquin River and building 125 houses on top of it. The April agenda said the Reclamation Board was only considering whether to permit builders to create the large levee by filling in the space between two parallel levees -- not place homes on top of it. Both the board's lawyer and top engineer advised against the action, and on Friday the Reclamation Board, which has a broad mandate to oversee flood- control systems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, rescinded its vote. Although the permit the builders seek is just one of many required from local, state and federal agencies, its issuance in April highlighted a sharp change from the board's previous policy of scrutinizing development behind levees, a stance that won the board the enmity of builders. Last September, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced the board with appointees considered to be more supportive of construction interests. The prior board, appointed by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, had begun to question the wisdom of allowing increased development behind the delta's aging levees. Environmentalists argued Friday that the impact of River Islands on the delta ecosystem had not been adequately assessed and that the board should deny the permit or at least postpone a decision. Representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council contended that River Island, when added to other development around the delta's edges, could impact water quality and the area's fragile ecosystem and increase the risk of catastrophic flooding. "Our concern is that this project -- and many others like it -- could make the delta less sustainable than it is today," said Barry Nelson, a senior policy analyst for the NRDC in San Francisco. Opponents also argued that a strengthened River Island levee would increase the danger of a breach on other weaker levees by pushing more flow against them. Lady Bug Doherty, a board member, asked Kate Poole, a resources council lawyer, if she wanted River Island to leave their levees weak. Dell'Osso countered that the only issue before the board was a permit to fill the area between two levees with dirt. "This permit is about fill. We're not asking permission to develop a project. This is simply a question as to where we place fill," said Alicia Guerra, a lawyer for the project. The environmental review of the project was approved in February. The project is backed by the city of Lathrop and several residents of Stewart Tract, where the project would be built.