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Life on the Levee

November 3, 2009

I’ve just finished working on a levee reconstruction project in Sacramento. Apparently the Army Corps of Engineers, who are the people in charge of levees and such things, thought it was necessary for a section of levee in West Sacramento to be ripped apart and put back together again in less than thirty days. If you are one of the seemingly endless number of people who usually drive past this particular levee on a daily basis and you have been away on holiday, or off sick with the Swine flu for the last month, you would have absolutely no idea that during that time the place has been systematically scraped, bashed, bulldozed, dug, ripped, drilled, and poked by various large pieces of equipment. You would also have no idea that the heavy clay soil that once made up the majority of the levee is now lying about 3 miles away in a field awaiting some grass, and the levee is now made from a better mix of loamy soil from a quarry on the other side of Sacramento. You would also have no idea that I have spent the better part of that time perched on the remaining section of the the levee at all times of day and night keeping an eye out for any snakes that ignore the No Unauthorised Entry signs and stupidly gatecrash the construction zone in a suicidal attempt at getting to or from the water.

Due to the fact that the levee lies adjacent to a body of water (as is a levee’s want) which is considered prime habitat for the giant garter snake (GGS) extra steps are required in order to protect both the habitat and the snake during construction. This is a species of snake which is listed as threatened by both the Federal and Californian state Endangered Species Acts which protect it and it’s habitat. Therefore, whenever there is to be any kind of activity which may disrupt this snake and cause unneccessary “take” (pc term for killing one) there is a requirement for the involvement of a biologist. Enter me. My company is employed to carry out pre and during-construction  surveys for any threatened species that may be in the area. In this instance, due to the proximity of the project to prime GGS habitat, we were required to be on-site at any time when construction activities were occurring. This included watching guys make tea in case a snake jumped out from behind the kettle, or watching whenever the guy flipped the Stop/Go sign around because we all know how much snakes like to hide on the Go side just to scare folk when it’s their turn to drive.

There were no snakes. Instead, I learned a lot about working on a large-scale construction site. I learned who all the guys are that you see standing around in white hats and yellow vests; There’s the major contractor (at least two representatives), the land holder or governing body (in this case, the Corps of Engineers, one to eight representatives), construction company regional superintendent, project managers, at least two foremen, a survey guy who sometimes drives a grader, a safety guy (usually in a red hat), a geotechnician (or two. They’re the ones with the mullets and the off-roading stickers on their trucks), a mechanic, the guy counting the dump trucks, the guy directing the dump trucks, the occasional unknown body, and if you time it right, the shift containing the next group of the same, and a biologist. All told, you could easily see a group of fifteen to twenty people standing around watching one guy drive a grader back and forth. But at least I now know what they all do.

I have also had some interesting conversations with some of these folks. Some of them obviously thought that I was too crazy (or liberal) to talk to. This is probably because, even in the middle of the night, in less than forty degrees farenheit when all self-respecting reptiles are tucked up in their nests miles away from any construction site, and all that’s there is a giant hole in the ground, I would be walking back and forth with my torch looking for snakes. Some of them, however, probably only to ease their own boredom, engaged me in conversation. There was the one guy who asked me if Scotland was “one of those Socialist countries, like England?”. I wasn’t really sure what he meant, other than that it had something to do with the current health care debate and the fact that in Britain, apparently the NHS stops looking after you when you turn 60, which would mean that my 89-year-old Grandmother hasn’t seen a doctor since 1980! People believe some crazy stuff when they want to. I was too stunned to let him know that most other countries in the developed world have a decent public healthcare system and that most of them would probably object to being referred to as Socialist. I also spent a bit of time trying to talk shop with some of the guys until all my attempts at humour were received like a juggling donkey at the funeral of an unsuccessful donkey trainer. I tried to get them to bet on the various pieces of machinery that were doing laps around the site, that didn’t work. I suggested putting a rubber snake in the cab of the foreman’s truck, that also, didn’t work. I did, however, get a decent amount of conversation out of one guy. We were discussing logging trucks and how you can pass a full truck going one way and then in a few minutes pass another going in the opposite direction. I asked him why they don’t just keep each load of logs wherever they came from and cut down on the, seemingly unnecessary, transportation (Thanks to Brian Regan for that one)? He spent a good five minutes explaining the ins and outs, comings and goings of the logging industry in Northern California. Well worth it. I have learned to find humour in the fact that people in the US often don’t know when I’m taking the mickey, bullshitting, or generally just talking bollocks, which, as you may have come to realise, is most of the time.

So anyway, that about does it for this post, I’m out of nonsense ( I almost wrote bollocks there, Ha!). Needless to say I’m looking forward to the next project I’m assigned. Maybe I’ll be babysitting another non-existant colony of snakes, or maybe they’ll put me on the Sasquatch alert team, I’d probably have more luck!

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 10, 2009 3:07 pm

    It’s like a dream Gillies, wandering about a hole in a dyke – levee! – among lots of mysterious men in hard hats. Your Mom! is here right now (London) and we’re having tree surgery, men in hard hats swinging from branches and so she pointed out the similarity with your situation except we have no snakes, rubber or otherwise. I have to say the weather here is dreadfully nice, around 10 – 15 degrees C – humidity 97, lots of wet leaves and occasional sun, just enough to reassure us that it’s still there. After 101 degrees in Chicago a day never passes but that I love British weather.

    What else can I talk about? I’ll think of something some day.

    Good luck with the wild beasts and love to Lex,


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